A battle for India's soul

With Delhi assembly elections set for February 8, the battle lines are sharply drawn between two pitting ideologies that have polarised national discourse like at no time before, writes Tarun Basu for South Asia Monitor

Feb 03, 2020

The Constitution of India has often been called "a bag of borrowings", as its 284 founding fathers, who made up the Constituent Assembly that met for three years from 1946 to 1949 specifically to draft it, borrowed and adopted best practices from constitutions of many countries - from the United States to Japan. The Preamble was borrowed from the Preamble of the US Constitution, which begins with the words "We, the People of India",  bestowing, with astonishing foresight, the people of the 'democratic republic' ownership of the document that lays out its supreme law and political values. Today, the Preamble, and the principles it enshrines, has become the most quoted document among ordinary people of India, particularly the young, and has been read, recited and quoted from a range of public platforms across the nation by protesters against the amended citizenship law, called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

In one legislative stroke, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has, perhaps unwittingly, restored to the people a hallowed document that was  drafted in their name, but was so long confined to the recesses of public libraries. It was, therefore, ironical that the adoption of the Constitution was less celebrated among its rulers and legislators and more by people for whom the latest amendment was as seen going against its fundamental principles of "equality" to all religions. In fact, B R Ambedkar, idolized as the "architect" of the Constitution by virtue of heading its Drafting Committee had warned prophetically during a parliamentary debate in 1953 that India cannot "ignore the minorities" and said its "greatest harm will come by injuring the minorities".

As the anti-CAA protests have spread nationwide, they have come to acquire - like the much talked about Shaheen Bagh protest in the capital - a certain identity, with people sympathetic to the cause saying they have scripted "a new grammar of Gandhian protest." Detractors, however, brand them uncharitably as the "tukde tukde gang," a moniker for anarchists, a favourite of Home Minister Amit Shah, or worse, traitors - as another minister insinuated - who deserve to be shot. 

With Delhi assembly elections set for February 8, the battle lines are sharply drawn between two pitting ideologies that have polarised national discourse like at no time before. An overzealous BJP candidate - a defector from the ruling AAP party  -  gave a bizarre jingoistic twist by describing the coming electoral battle as India vs Pakistan, insidiously labelling the Shaheen Bagh protesters, who are predominantly Muslim women, children and youth from diverse backgrounds, as 'Pakistanis' who were being supported by the ruling AAP. This, despite the fact that the protesters have striven to be non-partisan, are seen to be politically "leaderless," have been zealous in projecting their Indian identity, with effusive  displays of Indian flags and copies of the Constitution, accompanied by chanting of patriotic slogans, and have been supported by a broad cross-section of the liberal intelligentsia and enlightened groups. 

Seventy years after the Constitution of India came into being - the longest Constitution in the world for a sovereign nation - it is being as avidly discussed, as much as it is seen to be violated. While Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly asserted that the CAA is not against India's Muslims, who number nearly 200 million, and they were as much "ours as other citizens are", why is it that his putative lieutenant, Home Minister Shah, never misses an opportunity to not just demonise but 'other' the Muslims, using choice pejoratives when alluding to them and saying with pointed venom at one of his Delhi campaign rallies that "people should press (the button) with such force"  on the electronic voting machine that "people of Shaheen Bagh should feel the current". If the Muslims were indeed considered equal citizens in a country, why would his ministers speak so disparagingly, and even scornfully, of protesters who are mainly hijab-clad women - some of them in their eighties and nineties - most of whom are out for the first time in the streets to protest, and whose greatest crime is probably in picketing an important arterial road linking the capital with its eastern suburbs, creating massive traffic snarls.  

As the Shaheen Bagh sit-in crossed the 50-day mark, and inspired similar sit-ins led by Muslim women in many cities and towns, the reluctance of the government to speak to its "own citizens" is, indeed, baffling. Instead, what happened were crude attempts at violence instigation, with at least two Hindu fanatics being caught at the spot brandishing pistols, even firing and injuring people, while mouthing hate slogans. Many feel politically charged Delhi is sitting on a powder keg. 

The Modi government, true to its right-wing agenda, has made national security its core governance plank and seeks to assure citizens that the nation can be safe and secure only under its watch. It has adopted a militarised political vocabulary; created a Pakistan bogey to drive fear among ordinary people about a perennial threat from across the border and 'suspect' co-religionists in India; seeks a pan subcontinental Hindu consolidation, and dubs anyone opposing its policies as "anti-national," to create sharp ideological fault lines across Indian society. 

The Constitution's founding fathers, in their visionary wisdom,  thought it essential that, for the proper functioning of democracy, and promotion of national unity and solidarity, "communalism should be eliminated from Indian life".  India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, told the Constituent Assembly that the "alliance of religion and politics.....is a most dangerous alliance" and was "harmful to the country".  Many see in the present situation a battle to reclaim the nation's soul - and, in many ways, India's future - one that the country, and indeed the world, will be closely watching. 

(The writer is President, SPS)