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Whither The Republic?

Whither The Republic?

On 15 August 1947, India made her tryst with destiny as she attained freedom after long years of colonial rule. This tryst, this freedom saw a new dawn, when two and a half years later, on 26 January 1950 India began actualizing her freedom. On that memorable day, India not only became a republic but began implementing a visionary and inclusive Constitution which was promulgated three months earlier on 26 November 1949. Republic day on 26 January was significant it was on this day in 1929  the Declaration of Indian Independence (‘Purna Swaraj’) was proclaimed by the Indian National Congress as opposed to the Dominion status offered by the British Regime . With the tricolour in one hand and the Constitution in the other India had come of age with Swaraj and Sovereignty, determined to find her place on the world stage!

That day was surely the celebration of a republic, a fledgling nation had come on its own! There were the freedom fighters and among them those who shed their blood for freedom. There were the stalwarts Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Annie Beasant, Bhagat Singh, Maulana Azad and several others; there were the women and men of the Constituent Assembly, led by Dr B.R. Ambedkar representing the wealth and diversity of a great nation. India had it all:  a Constitution with a Preamble that is the guiding post for the realization of all we want to become as “we , the people of India”; the rich national flag  with a  colour scheme : saffron, white and green symbolizing  courage and sacrifice, peace and truth, and faith and chivalry respectively, and a picture of the spinning wheel at the centre signifying the  people’s quest for self-reliance; the national anthem , composed none other than our Nobel Laureate , Rabindranath Tagore , in which we revel in the beauty and wealth of our great land; finally, our national emblem, rich in symbolism depicted by the three Lions of Sarnath , the Ashoka wheel and at the base those immortal words, in the Devanagari script, Satyameva Jayate Truth Alone Triumphs ).

New India could not have asked for more! But sulking in some corners of the Republic were those who belonged to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). These were those who curried favour with the colonial rulers, did nothing in the struggle for independence and yet hoped that India would become a ‘Hindu Nation-state’. Their dreams did not bear fruit. They were inspired by their ideologues Veer Savarkar who in 1934 wrote his ‘Rashtra Mimansa’; this work was translated in 1939 by Guru Golwalkar in ‘We, or Our Nationhood Defined’.  The great people who gave us freedom were certainly preoccupied with getting the new nation on its feet. But the RSS and its ilk, with their insidious designs, were going to sit still. They assassinated Mahatma Gandhi and over the years, they stealthily permeated every section of society in the civil services and the bureaucracy; in the judiciary and in the law enforcement agencies; in Constitutional and other independent agencies. They were everywhere: even if one did see the writing on the wall, it was regarded as a passing fantasy. Till they seized political power in a big way in 2014 and in a bigger way in 2019!

Since 2014, they have succeeded in putting India in a massive mess; the economy is in shambles! O n 20 January, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) lowered growth estimate for India to 4.8 per cent for 2019, citing stress in the non-bank financial sector and weak rural income growth as the major factors for the downward revision. Wealth continues to be concentrated in the hands of a miniscule minority, who continue to amass scandalous. The demonetization scam hit the poor very much; it helped their crony capitalist friends to profit immensely; the exercise also helped in raking in plenty of ‘moolah’ for their party coffers. Corruption is mainstreamed as never before; the latest Corruption Perception Index 2020 released by Transparency International on 23 January shows that India has fallen two more places to the 80th position of the 180 countries surveyed.

In August 2019, the nation witnessed the unconstitutional abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A in Kashmir. The state is still on a lockdown and Kashmiris are being denied their basic rights and freedoms. The new ‘Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act - UAPA 2019 (Amendment Act)’ clearly infringes on the fundamental rights of citizens. Harassments and threats to human rights defenders, media personnel, intellectuals and others, who have the courage to take a stand for truth and justice, continue with frightening regularity. On 22 January, when the ‘Democracy Index 2019’ was released India had dropped ten places to the 51st rank out of 167 nations. Expressing concern over the "discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the controversial NRC (national register of citizens)” , the Index cited " democratic regression (in) erosion of civil liberties" as a major reason in awarding a score of 6.9 on 10 - its lowest, since the index was first published in 2006.

Several intellectuals in India do think that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) is a calculated and manipulative ploy of the ruling regime to defocus from their inability to govern and to shore up the economy of the nation. It is also a very clear strategy toward the establishing of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Whatever the reason, the people of India are today out on the streets, in millions, in an unprecedented show of strength and solidarity, protesting against a law and policies which are patently discriminatory, divisive and draconian and which most believe, go against the grain and spirit of India’s constitution and democratic framework.

The CAA, the NPR and the NRC are bound to have a serious and detrimental impact on the poor, excluded, the minorities and vulnerable groups like the adivasis and dalits.  This anti-human exercise makes it incumbent on a person to prove one’s citizenship by furnishing one’s ‘official’ certificate of birth. Large sections of Indian society certainly do not have it; apparently  PAN card, passport, Aadhar card, driving licence, do not fulfil this obligation. So, what will happen to the millions of Indians who are not able to furnish their official birth certificate? A palpable fear has gripped several sections of society.

Students are protesting ‘en masse’; post-independence, this is the first time that the country is experiencing strong voices of protest from this section of society. The attacks on protesting students by police and right-wing elements in the Jamia Islamia University, the Aligarh Muslim University, and the Jawaharlal Nehru University and on other university campuses have not been taken lightly. Students and others from across India and the globe, have been unequivocal in condemning these brutalities and demanding the revocation of laws which are divisive.

In a hard-hitting cover story ‘Intolerant India’ , the prestigious London weekly ‘The Economist (23 January 2020)says,  “at a fancy  dinner in the Indian capital a newscaster wonders aloud whether India has entered a new and darker era, what he calls a second republic. “More like a Second Reich,” mutters a seasoned politician, staring into his whisky glass. Others nod. One guest disables her phone; someone might be eavesdropping. No one laughs……Yet after seven weeks of unrest, sparked by the passage in December of a law that ominously redefines the nature of Indian citizenship, doubts about where the country is heading have grown commonplace. Like the proverbial boiling of a frog, until recently what has been a slow but steady drift—of civil liberties being eroded, democratic institutions weakening and base populist urges being empowered—had met with only sporadic resistance. Now, suddenly, the frog seems to have woken up and found itself in hot water”.

Exactly a year ago, on 1 February 2019, a group of eminent citizens headed by Justice A P Shah and with Anjali Bhardwaj and Prashant Bhushan as convenors, published a path-breaking document, ‘Reclaiming the Republic’. The preamble to the document states We are a group of concerned citizens – drawn from the world of scholarship, writing, law, administration and activism – with some experience in fields such as health, education, environment, social inclusion, transparency, and accountability. Some of us have worked in the media and some have held positions in the judiciary, government and institutions of accountability. We have varied political opinions and affiliations, but are united in our trust in democratic institutions, in our adherence to the philosophy of the Constitution and belief in the idea of a plural, democratic Republic of India. Deeply concerned, of late, about the multiple challenges to that Republic, we have undertaken to examine these challenges in some depth, and to propose to our fellow citizens means to protect and strengthen the Constitutional safeguards for our democratic polity and composite society. We see the forthcoming Lok Sabha election as an opportunity to retrieve and, indeed, reclaim from manipulation and subversion, our legacy of the Republic”.

More than two thousand years ago, one of Plato's most famous works, which can be attributed to the lessons he learned from Socrates, was  The Republic. This is also considered to be the first book on political science or government and uses the Platonic method to reason through ideas on justice. In the book, a group decides to create an imaginary city to define what justice looks like. The city is divided into classes: the Rulers who have an understanding of right and wrong, the Guardians who protect the city and care for its people, and the Producers who provide goods and services for the people.

Unfortunately, the ruling regime of India, have absolutely no notion of justice, as they roughshod all citizens in order to mainstream their devious, divisive, discriminatory agenda! I n a very calculated and manipulative move, they have struck at the core values of the democratic republic; justice, liberty, equality, fraternity secularism and pluralism are gradually becoming more an exception than the birthright of all citizens. Good sections of the media are pliant and uncritical, just mouthing their master’s voice!

As the country celebrates yet another Republic Day, the ordinary citizen is desperately trying to salvage the Constitution which is being torn to shreds; the tricolor which is being trampled upon, the national anthem which is being shorn of its pluralism; and the national emblem with its motto which is being meticulously disfigured than the normal. Very hesitantly he citizen asks ‘whither the Republic’?

But all is not lost: the anti -people and inhuman legislation have brought millions out on the streets in unprecedented and massive protests in every corner of the country. The Preamble of the Constitution is read and pledges are made.   The words of freedom from Tagore ring true as never before:

“Freedom from fear is the freedom
I claim for you my motherland!

Freedom from the insult of dwelling in a puppet's world,
where movements are started through brainless wires,
repeated through mindless habits,
where figures wait with patience and obedience for the
master of show, to be stirred into a mimicry of life”.

There is a refrain being sung over and over again and everywhere "Azadi Azadi!"  Above all, there is a deep and determined conviction that “ we the people of India” will reclaim the Republic! Until such time the struggle will continue!

(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights activist and writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)

(Published on 27th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 05)