The ‘waters’ of pluralism, of democracy and republicanism are being tested. They must not be found to be running thin or shallow
The nation’s calendar has become so crowded with official anniversaries that our 66th Republic Day — day after tomorrow — is bound to get buried under their mounting marigolds.
Anniversaries of births and deaths are observed by Bharat sarkar and by state governments unblinkingly. Next-of-kin and other dignitaries attired in regulation white arrive and depart unsmilingly. Others attend out of duty or self-interest with scarcely a thought spared for the departed soul or for the hallowed date.
Joining the sequence of hollow annuities, our Independence Day and Republic Day have all but lost their historic voltages. The significance of the Republic Day, with its high visual appeal through parades, pageants and ‘fly-pasts’, has been taken over by ceremonials. This year, the 66th Republic Day will have to overcome another unintended challenge. A visit by any United States President would generate excitement in India. The visuals surrounding US President Barack Obama’s visit will further obscure the Republic Day’s ideational significance. This will be our vagrant and forgetful soul’s fault, not his.
It is important that we retrieve the salience of Republic Day from the stars and the spangles that will surround it. It is vital, this time around more than ever before, to look beyond the rehearsed festivities and the repetitious drills, to think of what being a Republic is about.
Why? Because, on our forgetfulness of its founding scripts is now pasted a counter alphabet. On the many-hued frescoes of our nation’s consciousness now appears a wallpaper of monochromatic sameness. This new overlay is of concepts that not only differ, radically, from those of our Republic’s founders but actually oppose it.
The words of the first President, Rajendra Prasad, in his first speech as President of India compel recollection. Let us consider his succinct and strong words: “It is our Republic’s intention to secure for its people justice, liberty and equality. And to instil a sense of mutuality (bhratra-bhav) among the diverse people who live within its vast frontiers, professing different faith traditions (jo vibhinna dharmon ko maante hein).”
These foundational ideas are under assault by direct confrontation, insidious subversion and by wilful neglect. They militate against the foundational vision of the Republic of India as given to us by our first President.
Justice has been replaced by profit, liberty by conformity, equality with obedience to a new statism, which believes in uniformity where unity was, conformity where consensus was. The concord between those professing ‘vibhinna dharma’, as explained by President Prasad, has been given a shock by concepts that look like programmes of ghar wapsi and the call for the Bhagavad Gita to be given the status of a ‘National Book’. These two have illustrious company in the ‘Ram v/s Haram’ polarisation, ‘Good Governance Day’ pasted over Christmas and the extraordinary plan to convert January 30 from Shaheed Divas into Shaurya Divas, to replace the assassinated by the assassin.
All these counter-narratives constitute political ‘bhakti’.
Let us turn, for an understanding of that phrase, to the words of the chairman of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly. Heralding the Republic, BR Ambedkar said in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949 : “On the 26th of January 1950, India would be a democratic country in the sense that India from that day would have a government of the people, by the people and for the people…. (but) it is quite possible in a country like India — where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something quite new — there is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater… This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world….in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
The vast majority of Indians who happen to be Hindu have neither time nor patience for sectarian strife, much less for bellicosity. But the ‘waters’ of pluralism, of democracy and republicanism are being tested. They must not be found to be running thin or shallow.
‘Justice’ and ‘equality’ received a great propulsion through the MGNREGA and the RTI Act. The MGNREGA has been flawed as any good programme can be but it has put food into millions of stomachs. To trim it is grossly anti-poor. P Sainath has documented a north-eastern beneficiary of the threatened scheme saying with a bluntness which cannot be faulted: “If our stomachs are going to be empty, of what use will swachh toilets be?” For more than six months now, the office of the chief information commissioner has remained vacant. Have the people suddenly stopped wanting information? Likewise, the education qualification imposed from out of the blue for panchayats in Rajasthan is a blow to our democratic ethos. Eighty per cent of Rajasthan’s people will be de-barred from standing for panchayat elections. And then we have amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, which make land depriving without adequate recompense vastly easier.
The vision of India as given to us by our first President read with Ambedkar’s caution about democracy itself turning into a dictatorship bolstered by ‘bhakti’ must be reflected on, this Republic Day.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz , who battled disappointment and demoralisation with the betrayals to democracy in Pakistan, wrote memorably: ‘Un sab se keh do aaj ki shab jab diye jalaaen, oonchi rakhen lau’. ‘Tell them, this night, when they light the lamps, to make sure the wicks stand tall’.
We must keep the Republic’s taper burning bright and tall against the assaults on it.
Ganatantra-divas ki jai!
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is senior fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University
The views expressed by the author are personal