Yaad-e-maazi azaab hai yaa Rab
Cheen lo mujh se hafiza mera
(Recollecting the past is a torment; O God, Take away my power of recall)
Former Vice President of India
Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad Memorial Lecture
July 19, 2019
THE late Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad saheb belonged to and represented another era in the life of modern India. He participated in the freedom movement and occupied high offices in the state and central governments, including the highest. It was my privilege to receive him in Abu Dhabi when he paid a state visit to the United Arab Emirates in October 1976.
My generation grew up in that period and imbibed the values enshrined in the Constitution of India which itself was a product of the Freedom Struggle and the principles on which it was conducted. In a plural landscape, we sought to shape a secular polity, create a liberal democracy premised on the principles of Justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity to preserve the heritage of our composite culture and develop a scientific temper.
In a thought provoking book a few years back, Ananya Vajpeyi wrote that ‘what is valuable in the idea of India and what makes India worth preserving is not just its modern political form of a plural, secular, egalitarian democracy, but its legacy of centuries of reflection on the avenues available to the human mind to transcend the suffering inherent in the human condition… Free India, India that has won its swaraj, India hard-fought and envisioned by extraordinary figures like Gandhi and Ambedkar, Tagore and Nehru, was the dream of realizing both the norm of righteousness and the form of a republic. Accounts of its quest for sovereignty I found aplenty. I wanted to track its still elusive search for the self.’
More recently, she has bemoaned the most damaging impact in recent years of ‘the slow, steady erosion of empathy as a public value, leaving us morally impoverished – lesser human beings and lesser Indians.’
The India of today, I confess, appears to be a very different place in its perception, articulation, and practice. Above all, sections of the opinion are purposefully involved in disowning the past, re-writing parts of it, distorting it to create new idols and ideas. Old India, it is claimed, is dead, that 40 percent of voters are now middle class, that their ‘aspirations’ are understood by the Leader, and that it represents a triumph of chemistry over arithmetic. Less candidly, the ideology of a ‘cultural’ organization has been injected in segments of public opinion and has been imbibed almost imperceptibly in the name of the ‘nation’ and ‘national security.’
In a recently published book a scholar of eminence has observed that ‘in a short space of four years, India has made a very long journey. It has travelled from its founding vision of civic nationalism to a new political imaginary of cultural nationalism that appears to be firmly embedded in the public realm.’
Why has this happened? Why has a plural society, with a long tradition of accommodation of diversity reflected with some care in its Constitution, decided to abandon it in favour of a unilateral and distorted reading of its own past? Why is it attempting to rewrite the history of its own freedom struggle and the values enshrined in it?
Some careful observers of the Indian scene have attributed the changes underway to populism, authoritarianism, nationalism, and Majoritarianism. Each of these requires careful scrutiny:
Populism: Two years back an article in the US magazine Atlantic shed light on its contours. It is not an ideology but a strategy to obtain and retain power. It is divisive, thrives on conspiracy, find enemies even when they do not exist, criminalizes all opposition to them, and plays up external threats.
In such an approach success is sure, as Mark Twain would have said, through a combination of ignorance and confidence.
Authoritarianism in government denotes the concentration of power in the hands of a leader or small elite to the detriment of well-settled procedures of governance.
Nationalism is often confused with patriotism and used interchangeably. Both are words of ‘unstable and explosive content and so need to be handled with care.’ They differ in meaning and content, as was pointed out by George Orwell many years back. Nationalism means identifying oneself with a single nation placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than of advancing its interests; patriotism, on the other hand, is devotion to a particular place or way of life without wishing to force it on others.
Thus patriotism is of its nature defensive both militarily and culturally, and nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power. It is an ‘ideological poison’ that has no hesitation in transcending and transgressing individual rights.
Decades earlier Rabindranath Tagore had called nationalism ‘a great menace’, described it as ‘one of the most powerful anesthetics that man has invented.’ He had expressed himself against ‘the idolatry of the nation.’
Majoritarianism in the Indian context implies that a religious majority is entitled to primacy in society and has the right by virtue of it to take basic decisions relating to the whole society. This is very different from an electoral majority emanating from an electoral process whose results are time-specific and subject to periodic review in a democratic system. Implicit in this approach is the propensity to sidestep or override the basic principle of equality enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution. Thus it is the antithesis of equality and justice and its emerging manifestations have been commented upon in public discourse and in debates in the current session of Parliament.
Some questions arise here:
Has populism and demagoguery resulted from a lack of performance?
Why have democratic procedures and commitment to Rule of Law failed giving rise to the need for authoritarianism?
Why are the Constitutional principles of Equality, Justice, and Fraternity tending to become subservient to the ‘majoritarian’ impulses of the electoral majority in a first-past-the-post system?
What new impulses have made way for strident nationalism?
Where, in short, does the responsibility for the ‘sin’ of letting down the ideological and administrative system lie? Who are the ‘sinners’?
Guilt, according to the philosopher Karl Jaspers, has categories: criminal, political, moral and metaphysical. Where would we be justified in placing it?
Dekhā to sab ke ser pe gunāhoñ kā bojh tha
(Every head bears the burden of sins)
Societies have changed course in the past either as a result of external aggression and cultural imposition or from internal ideological and spiritual convulsions.
Postmortems are gruesome business, more so of recent social and political happenings. Our generation took post-independence developments as given. The Partition and its aftermath were indeed painful but we took the decisions of our elders as irreversible even if their judgment was not infallible. We took pride in the Constitution given to us by the Constituent Assembly and often paid lip service to it forgetting Ambedkar’s warning about ‘life of contradictions’, and about his caution on conditions precedent for the successful working of democracy listed as (i) no glaring inequalities, (ii) need for strong opposition, (iii) equality in law and administration, (iv) observance of constitutional morality, (v) no tyranny of majority over minority, (vi) functioning of a moral order in society, and (vii) a strong presence of Public Conscience.
Above all, we soft-peddled the quiet impulses in society directed at subverting these very egalitarian principles that sought to allow the principles of justice, equality and fraternity to take roots.
We did the same with institutions of the state – legislative, executive, judicial – so diligently crafted and premised on Rule of Law that links the notions of rights, development, governance, and justice and is defined as the absolute supremacy of regular law, equality before the law, and access to justice.
Much earlier, in fact at the moment of birth, Josh Malihabadi had summed up the corrosive behaviour patterns in society:
Wahshat rava, anaad rava, dushmani rava
Halchal rava, kharosh rava, sunsani rava
Rishwat rava, fasaad rava, rehzani rava
Al qissa har woh shai ki hai nakardani rava
(Hatred, ill will, enmity, disorder, noise, sensation, bribery, rioting, robbery, in short everything that should not be done is permitted).
So across the board and in each of the critical areas of national activity, our performance as a people has often been wanting and at times abysmal. We professed but did not practice faith in a set of moral values and in institutions crafted to implement them. We undermined them by our behaviour and selfishness; Rule of Law, said a senior law officer in 2005, was ‘under serious threat’ and ‘each institution is destroying itself from within’ and that ‘there are cancerous developments eating into the fabric of each institution. If these trends are not arrested they are bound to be destructive of the Indian State in the long run.’
We did make material progress. Many good schemes and programs for economic development were made but poorly implemented. Uneven development has characterized our performance. We are listed 130th in the Global Human Development Index (2018) and as 12th most inequitable economy in the world.
There have of course been good patches and commendable performances but these were not sustained. Collectively and perhaps unconsciously, we allowed the seeds of discontent to take roots.
In the recent election campaign, much was said with justice about rural distress, unemployment, declining levels of foreign investments and exports performance. The interesting thing is that opposition assertions about the poor state of the economy, belied by the government during the campaign, have been accepted as correct after the publication of results!
We witnessed the same process with other economic measures like the return of black money. Could there be better examples of chicanery?
Most of us would not have heard of Edward Bernays. He died in 1995 and was considered the father of propaganda in the United States. He wrote a short tract in 1928 entitled Propaganda. Its opening lines were: ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.’ Propaganda, he said, is of no use to the politician unless he has something to say which the public, consciously or unconsciously, wants to hear. He also observed that ‘the engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and to suggest.’
The moulding of the public mind by a public figure or a demagogue is not an unknown phenomenon and has been witnessed in recent times. Much earlier, a poet had depicted the style that beggared all description:
Magar usko faraib-e-nargis-e-mastana aata hai
Ulati hain safain gardish main jab parvana aata hai
(Well versed as it is in the wavered sensuousness of the nargis, no power can stand once the goblet starts to whirl.)
Yet, the audience had to be conditioned to receive the message. This was done through a sustained process of indoctrination initiated at the pre-school, primary and secondary school levels in which culture itself was redefined and conflated with aspects of faith and selected versions of the past. A network of ideologically oriented groupings continued it at other levels in society. Their organization, resources, and reach became formidable over time. Their approach, to borrow a phrase from a recent comment in the Economist magazine, is ‘zealous, ideological and cavalier with the truth.’
Created alongside was a simplistic and motivated version of the Partition blaming it on one community in a selective and slanted narration of recent history. An Indian version of ‘Muslim-phobia’ has been inducted in the social media discourse. In this manner, an image of the ‘Other’ has been created to supplement the indoctrination of the minds.
This process of moulding the minds was known but not countered even when governments of other political orientation were in seats of power. This can only be attributed to an ideological vacuum or worse that seemed to have crept in, perhaps allowed to creep in. A late and simplistic corrective was of no avail and was laughed off. We lost our way and did not even realise it:
Na pucho ahd-e-ulfat ki bas ik khvab-e-pareshan tha
Na dil ko raah par laa.e na dil kā mudda.ā samjhe
(Muse not over bygone promises of love and the disarranged dreams that could neither anchor the heart nor fathom the depth of its desire).
Secularism as a concept and as a practical instrumentality of statecraft has been subjected to sophistry and made a site for political and legal contestation without regard to its antecedent moral principles of equality, democracy rights and freedom.
Thus conceptually and in practice faith, history and culture were packaged and a particular orientation given to it. Ignored or underplayed was the critical point that the Indian identity was an amalgam of identities and that pluralism and the attendant practices of tolerance and acceptance was the basis on which Indian Nationalism and the Freedom Movement took shape. The Indian reality of migrating groups seeking greener pastures since times immemorial was better depicted in a couplet:
Sar zamin-e-hind par aqwam-e-alam ke Firaq
Qafile baste gae hindostan banta gaya
(Caravans from nations of the world kept coming and contributed to the formation of Hindostan)
Answers to our four questions are now clear. The sin is the betrayal of the core values of the Constitution; the sinners are those who professed those values but did not uphold them adequately and allowed a thoughtless use of franchise to become its instrumentality.
It is easy retrospectively to identify the tactics resorted to. Although lack of performance and unfulfilled promises were glaring in the face of the voter, particularly the youth, it was ingeniously evaded and replaced by a toxic brew of ‘national interest’ and ‘national security’. Its success, in the absence of sufficient facts, was facilitated by ideological indoctrination and the organization that accompanied it.
This orientation of the voter was not challenged. Instead, ground for it seems to have been prepared over time by failures in governance and a slackening in the processes of commitment to the values of the Constitution.
Is it then surprising that the public felt disappointed, despondent and frustrated?
The implications of strident nationalism remain to be understood. Its momentary success, selectively targeted at an obdurate and ill-intentioned neighbour, is evident; less perceptible are its longer-term consequences. The pre-requisites of a ‘Great Nation’ vision are as yet invisible; the notion of an Akhand Bharat as depicted in a cultural organization’s cartography has geopolitical and demographic consequences that may not have been thought through. India lives in a world of nation-states in its own region and globally. The challenges of the future lie less in the realm of traditional interstate security and more in areas of human security – pandemics, water, environment, climate change, eradication of poverty. These require cooperation, adjustment of national demands and dictate a new mindset to address them.
Where then is the corrective? It lies in the foundational principles of the Indian polity and their diligent implementation. This is the only alternative to the hallucination induced by a ‘majoritarian’ ideology that threatens to overwhelm the plural, diverse, egalitarian, and the democratic landscape we relish and cherish. The hallucinatory virus, let be admitted, may have seeped into the bloodstream and through it to the interstices of the heart and the mind; it would, therefore, require a sufficiently powerful antidote that has to have effective alternatives on national and global issues.
Can the amnesia, the compromises and the misperceptions of recent and not so recent past be overcome? Yes, only if a meaningful alternative is offered.
We do stand at the crossroads.
Vajpeyi, Ananya. Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (Harvard 2012) p 250
Scroll, June 14, 2017.
Nirja Gopal Jayal in Re-Forming India: The Nation Today (New Delhi 2019) p xxxix).
Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India by Angana P. Chatterji,Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot (New Delhi 2019) p 1.
Vahanvati, Goolam E. ‘Rule of Law: The Siege Within’ in Constitutionalism, Human Rights & the Rule of Law – ed. Mool Chand Sharma & Raju Ramachandran (New Delhi 2005) p168.