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Many of the problems and issues in India – witness the political debate and the controversies that are so rife on twitter and other social media – are to do with either the relationship between people and the state, or the fine balance between the competing rights of individuals and communities.

It may be a generalisation but I believe that at its core these disputes arise from a fundamental lack of clarity in our own minds of the status of the people.

Are we citizens or are we subjects?

Until  70 years ago there was no question – we were subjects of one king or imperial power or the other. Even if you go back to before recorded history we were subjects of a King who later came to be regarded as God. Kingdoms large and small were sometimes replaced with empires as conquests superseded earlier victories. 

That changed dramatically with the ‘tryst with destiny’ in 1947 when almost overnight we became, in theory at any rate, citizens of a free sovereign nation. In 1950 we became a Republic when we gave ourselves a We-the-People type Constitution, thus setting in stone, so to speak, the role of the people as free citizens in determining the future.

But has this change of status from subject to citizen been reflected in how the State treats us; in how we treat and how we demand to be treated by the state;  and how we respond to each other and react with the State? Do we feel ourselves to be empowered citizens or do we behave like loyal (or disloyal) subjects? Do those we elect to run our affairs treat us as free citizens to whom they are accountable, or as subjects who can be taken for granted?

Make up your own mind But consider the distinction I make between citizens and subjects.

Citizens have rights and freedoms. They have independence of thought, speech and choice; they have agency. Citizens elect their governments to run the affairs of State – their State. They implicitly consent to laws that their elected representatives frame for the greater good of all citizens. When citizens are deprived of their basic freedoms by the agencies of the State it is only by the fair and impartial rule of law, and only after due process. When the State uses its power unreasonably citizens protest and expect at the very least not to be ostracised for it. 

Subjects, on the other hand, are people who have a duty, explicitly stated or otherwise, whether or not they agree, to serve the interests of the ruler. Such rights as they do enjoy are granted to them  at the will and behest of the ruler, capable of being restricted or removed at will. The ruler frames laws mainly for his benefit and implements these laws arbitrarily and not always with due process. As a consequence subjects can have new obligations imposed on them and rights and freedoms abrogated at the whim of the ruler.

A nation of citizens has a truly representative government with transparency, accountability and the rule of law applying equally to both rulers and citizens. The institutions and agencies (that run the country according to the will of the people as expressed through an elected legislature) do so impartially because firstly, they follow a code that requires them to respect the citizens, and secondly, they are independent of the state.  

It is possible in a country of nominally free citizens under an electoral democracy to end up with power going to a small group or ruling class that, whether benign or otherwise, acts mostly in its own interests with little accountability and little or no need for openness. It applies the law selectively, sparing its friends and cracking down on those who would question it. Indeed, the ruling class in a such a country with (de jure) citizens as  (de facto) subjects uses the law as a tool for oppression rather than for ensuring a free society. Such a power elite needs necessarily to subvert democratic processes, control institutions, and suppress dissent in order to maintain its hold on power.

Apply these criteria to the myriad ways in which the State in India interacts with the people, either liberating them or constraining them, either facilitating personal and collective freedoms or restricting individual liberties and group rights. Think about these criteria in relation to how we as individuals and communities interact with each other. Do we support each others’ freedoms or do we we deliberately or inadvertently reinforce our role as loyal subjects?

As a Twitter correspondent of mine put it, its actually quite simple:

Subjects are granted some rights by a sovereign Ruler.

Citizens are sovereign and grant some (temporary) power to a selected ruler.

I believe there is a long way to travel – before we can say we are no longer subjects but free citizens.

Democracies are expected to empower citizens to take genuine control of instruments of the state for their development. At the core of this concept is the idea that citizens will participate in governance at the local level, making decisions for themselves, and vote in representatives to legislatures for higher-level decisions. India is an implausible democracy, an audacious experiment, attempting to bring together a billion people with starkly different languages, religions, and food habits. However, the state of our democracy remains perilous, a country hanging on by a slender thread to its claim to being defined a democracy. Like with many other aspects famously considered ‘Indian’, our democracy is a mediocre one, fulfilling satisfactorily, only the most basic requirement of regular (and reasonably free and fair) elections. Democratic accountability in particular, appears particularly at risk, as we the people, have fewer ways to hold those in power responsible for their performance.

Four scenarios raising concerns about democratic accountability currently playing out in India:

Propaganda rules over facts

Late last year, the central government pulled off ‘Demonetisation’, an exercise in purging cash reserves of the political opposition after ensuring the ruling party’s own reserves were safely parked (or converted) well in time. Manipulation of the press by political parties through direct funding (or proxy measures) continues unabated, as news channels spectacularly out-do the state broadcaster in peddling propaganda. The true extent of damage caused by Demonetisation will never be known — not because we do not have the tools to measure the damage, but because voters are being herded like sheep, not to ask any questions. As a result, the Reserve Bank of India can get away without releasing key data, and the lack of that data need not deter the government from making grandiose statements that go almost completely unchallenged in the public domain. Those who do question, do it with the knowledge that nit-picking on facts is futile.

Dissent is anti-national

The state’s response to dissent continues to plumb new depths. Civil society voices have been muted, farmer/dalit protests are killed in cahoots with a friendly media, etc. Those speaking up against the rampant terrorism in the name of the cow, or the fast-receding freedom of the press, are labelled anti-national. Dissent, whether from the grassroots or from intellectuals in society, are continuously demonised by a government that seems to take pride in its own anti-intellectualism, and celebration of mediocrity as evident from the various appointments to institutions of repute. Activists are being silenced everywhere. Today, Medha Patkar languishes in jail, as a government utterly insensitive to citizen protests makes no conciliatory move.Decimation of political opposition: A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader — it is the perfect storm for the Indian National

Decimation of political opposition

A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader — it is the perfect storm for the Indian National Congress, and a sign of the times for political opposition in India. This decimation is now fully reflected in the composition of India’s Parliament, and the erosion of checks and balances that the Legislature is supposed to have over the Executive In a parliamentary system. The few states that are not ruled by the BJP get undue attention from partisan Governors and federal anti-corruption agencies. The use of the Governor’s office as a pawn in the hands of the central government must evoke a sense of deja-vu. Politics that seemed to have matured in the last fifteen years or so now lies in tatters.

Narcissism and hero-worship

When the BJP government recently completed three years in office, the government launched the MODI Fest — the Making of Developed India festival. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly Mann Ki Baat speeches were released as a book at an event in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Every government scheme is credited to only one man, and no failures are ever pinned on him. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Modi-bhakti seems to be his second-last weapon of choice.

The point overall is this — to celebrate our incredible democracy, it is not enough to just conduct every five years, and for everyone to accept the election results. That is a very low bar. What matters is the quality of our democracy as measured by how the polity, the people, and the institutions operate once elections are over.

By this measure, India’s democracy has a long way to go. The systematic destruction of institutions, which need to function with a degree of competence and independence, will eventually kill our democracy. In the last three years, our institutions have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of protecting themselves from a government with authoritarian tendencies. The power that we have to hold public officials and politicians to account is directly proportionate to the credibility of institutions of governance. The way the Reserve Bank of India has folded in the last nine months should be serious cause for concern. The repeated attempts at politicising the military forces, the bellowing nationalistic media, our sanskari cultural guardians, and the uber-patriotic people’s representatives — together foretell a scary future for India.

The immediate casualty has been democratic accountability. No one seems to be responsible for the sluggish economy, now showing alarming signs of slipping into deflation. Similarly, no one seems responsible for breakdown in public services that the government is responsible for, nor is anyone held accountable for the questionable and inconsistent foreign policy decisions. Neither national security, nor corruption or cronyism seem to be topical any longer. Vigilantes break the law with impunity, as representatives of government hail them as patriots.

It is a great tragedy that after completing seventy years as a proud independent nation, our democracy is faced with such an existential crisis. If you are a liberal progressive Indian, this spectre should concern you.

*****

A short addendum

A friend pointed out that none of this is “new” — that this has been the nature of politics in India, and indeed, is something I recognise in this column on politics and power:
It is in the nature of a government to exercise power. Every political party in power manifests power in one form or the other — never mind if the one exercising it is being labelled ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. Often, these labels allow us the convenience of picking sides based on who we like, rather than the issue at hand. This only serves to lower the quality of public debate. In reality, it would appear that at their extremities, the Left and Right are indistinguishable; and that is a clue that what we need to really discern is the manner in which both sides choose to exercise power. And for citizens unaffiliated with these labels, understanding power is the first step towards engaging with it.

The exercise of power, and the “feudal” nature of politics in India is a reality. And yet, there is distinct shift in the pattern that we need to recognise. A government running amok with little counter-balance from the Legislature or the Press, and an inconsistent Judiciary has created an unique operating environment. Political parties that are now emaciated are of course responsible for their own fates, but the corporate control of the media (and an organised effort on social media) has emboldened the current government in ways we haven’t seen in recent years. And while ordinary citizens and observers cannot replace a conventional political opposition, we need to keep demanding accountability from the government — ultimately, that is the essence of a democracy. The voters may yet surprise us again, (who knows!), but this column is about holding governments to account in between two successive elections.

Originally published here.

Challenging the Metanarrative Of Indian Independence Struggle.

A historian ought to be exact, sincere and impartial; free from passion, unbiased by interest, fear, resentment or affection; and faithful to the truth, which is the mother of history the preserver of great actions, the enemy of oblivion, the witness of the past, the director of the future, says Ambedkar.

The function of historian is neither to love the past, nor to condemn the past, nor to be free from the past, but to master the past in order to understand its bearing on the present. Therefore, let us re-look into the significance of 15th August 1947 for our country and its citizens. And also what we as Indians technically achieved on our most celebrated and glorified National holiday.

What India got on 15th August 1947?

  • What is a Dominion? Dominion means colonial self-Government.
  • Was the Total independence achieved from the British rule?

The late 19th century till the mid of twentieth century is very crucial in the evolution of Republic of India, as it stands today. This period marks the rise of political conscious and ambitious Indian nationalism. This is the period when the Indians started voicing out their political demands to the British Government. The politics of this time is described by the nationalist historiography as India’s Independence Struggle. This description is hitherto not challenged. Nationalists will not challenge this description is natural and can be easily understood. The Hindutva ideology also does not counter this description and in fact makes an attempt to locate itself within this framework in order to picture themselves and their leaders as ‘freedom fighters’ as it serves their task of Hindu Nationalism. The Ambedkarite Movement, the leftist Marxist movement, the Kanshiram pioneered Bahujan movement seems to disagree with this nationalist description though it cannot be in anyway regarded as countering the fundamental basis of the description and hence cannot be regarded as a challenge to the nationalist description. Their objection is mainly to the title of ‘Freedom Struggle’ and they want to merely describe it as ‘Transfer of Power from B2B i.e. From British to the power hungry Brahmins’. They do not question the fundamental assumptions of this description namely the ‘struggle of Indians against the tyrannical British rulers’, ‘the Congress Nationalism as the only nationalism’ etc. Their complain, being merely over the title and as it does not challenge the nationalist paradigm in any way, hence not fundamental and does not have any major bearing on the nationalist historiography. Thus their disagreement in fact is no disagreement.

Dr. Ambedkar described the Indian politics of his times as having two different aspects, namely –

  1. Foreign politics i.e. Quit India or the Transfer of Power Politics and
  2. Constitutional Politics i.e. the Communal Deadlock or the struggle between the Hindu Communal Majority against the Minorities.

Below is the sequence of events that took place around 15th August 1947, technically:

  1. What India got on 15th August 1947?
  2. On 15th August 1947 India got the Dominion status under the Indian Independence Act, 1947.
  3. Dominion is defined as a British colony with a responsible local self government. This means that India was a British colony even on 15th August 1947.
  4. The below excerpt from the Constituent Assembly debates would serve as the best evidence to understand the significance of 15th August 1947:

The confusion in the Constituent assembly:

Thursday, the 14th August 1947

(2) the Constituent Assembly of India has endorsed the recommendation that Lord Mountbatten be Governor-General of India from the 15th August 1947.

and that this message be conveyed forthwith to Lord Mountbatten by the President and Pandit Jawaharlal.Nehru. (Cheers.) I take it the House approves it.

The motion was adopted.

Friday, the 15th August 1947

The wishes from many countries started pouring in to India for achieving the Dominion status. None of them mentioned  “Republic of India” but just “Dominion of India” in their wishes.

Few messages could be read as below:

Message from Dr. Soedarsono on behalf of the Republic of Indonesia:

“On the eve of the establishment of the Dominion of India it is a great pleasure to the Republic of Indonesia to express her feelings of heartfelt joy, sympathy and friendship.”

Message from the President of the United States of America:

“On this memorable occasion I extend to you, to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and to the people of the Dominion of India the sincere best wishes of the Government and the people, of the United.States of America. I wish to avail myself of this opportunity of extending my personal congratulations to Your Excellency on your assumption of the post of Governor-General of the Dominion of India and at the same time to convey assurance of my highest consideration.”

H.E (His Excellency), the Governor-General: Mr. President and members of the Constituent Assembly:

“From today I am your constitutional Governor-General and I would ask you to regard me as one of yourselves. I am glad to announce that "my" Government (as I am now constitutionally entitled and most proud to call them) have decided to mark this historic occasion by a generous programme of amnesty.”

 

HOISTING OF THE NATIONAL FLAG

Mr. President: His Excellency will now give the signal for hoisting the Flag.

(The sound of a gun being fired was heard).

H.E. The Governor-General: That is the signal for hoisting the flag over this roof.

Mr. President: The House now stands adjourned till 10 of the Clock on the 20th.

Honourable Members: Mahatma Gandhi ki jai.

Mahatma Gandhi ki jai.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru ki jai.

Lord Mountbatten ki jai.

The Assembly then adjourned till 10 of the Clock on Wednesday, the 20th August 1947.

 

  1. On 15th August 1947 what was achieved was not Independence (Swatantrya) but Home Rule (Swarajya).
  2. The Constitutional head of India was the British Crown till 26th January 1950.
  3. On 26th January 1950 after all the provisions of the Constitution were made effective, India became a Sovereign Republic and Democratic country.
  4. From 15th August 1947 to 26th January 1950 India was governed according to the provisions of amended Government of India Act, 1935.
  5. Only on 26th January 1950 all the ties with the British Crown were broken and India was politically and constitutionally free country with all the privileges related to military and foreign relation powers.
  6. Therefore, India became free and got Total Independence (Swatantrya or Purna Swarajya) only on 26th January 1950, at least in technical sense.
  7. More so because even the date of 26th January was chosen for the implementation of Constitution because on this very day in 1930, the Congress passed the resolution of “Poorna Swaraj” in Lahore.
  8. Therefore, 15th August is therefore just a Dominion Day and not the Independence Day.
  9. The below illustration explains the political entitlements and progress India achieved:

 

India before the advent of British Raj

We must remember that what we now see as "India" was originally a collection of petty rajas, and kingdoms. It's the invaders who unified the subcontinent into a country called India. So let's be truthful about the facts and teach history as it happened and notoriously though thank those invaders for the present unity and diversity we enjoy. Myths also have played a major role in India attaining independence. The political movement of the Indian National Congress which started from the demand of ‘Home Rule’ i.e. ‘Dominion Status’ and matured into the demand of ‘Total Independence’ under the pressure of extremist movements outside and within the Congress is referred as the movement of Indian Independence is a point in case. The significance of 15th August 1947 must be seen in the light of these demands. Dissenting voices, if any, are raised only in the academic intellectual circles and are deliberately confined within the closed walls of universities, academic institutions and history congress.

The ‘Secularist’ and ‘Hindu-Nationalist’ Narratives concurrent apparently contradictory but part of the Same Grand Narrative, namely which camp is more patriotic.

 Civic Nationalism (New India) and Anti-colonial Nationalism (Quit India):

Nationalism is not an end but just a means for the individuals to reach the highest stage of Human development. An Individual is an end it itself. To create the social, political conditions in the world where each individual could spread the wingspan to its maximum potential. Nationalism which reformists like Phule and Ambedkar vouched for did not just object to the external domination but also the internal oppression, i.e. their brand of Patriotism deals with both the above progresses namely, Foreign politics as well as Constitutional politics which India as a country was heading towards. Unfortunately, the glorification of 15th August as Independence day which is confined to the mere idea of Foreign politics clearly subverts the latter progress, namely, the Constitutional politics which was also moving forward in parallel with the Foreign politics. Mere celebration of the freedom struggle movement against the British rule, invokes a limited sentiment of Anti-colonial Nationalism. The period of late 19th century till the mid of twentieth century has been also remarkable in resolving the age-old feuds among Indians. The people, now citizens, were nothing but warring camps. The Hindu-Muslim issue. The caste inequalities. The princely states vs their subjects, now citizens. The Zamindars vs the landless.

This period has been instrumental in finding a safe ground plan to address innumerable such issues among Indians for a safe and sustainable democracy after the British rule would end.

Social reform must precede Political reform. Alteast the political reformists must consider Social reform as an integral part of the political reform. But the subversion of Social conference of Ranade by Tilak is the best example of the undermining of Social reform in context of Indian independence struggle. Be it through right from Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms, to the working and contribution of Indian intelligentsia in the works of various commissions, the Round table conferences that followed likewise in the making of India. And then ultimately at the remarkable and exhaustive Constituent assembly debates.

Like Anti-colonial movement, the Constitutional politics involved even more herculean task of bringing all the warring groups on board. All of these efforts involved a series of conflicts and struggle among the Indians to achieve the position of dignity in free India. The biggest example of the conflict among Indians manifested into partition and blood bath that followed soon after 15th August 1947. The constitutional politics was addressing this very problem. It was indeed talking about New India and the new order.

The significance of this period is more relevant in today’s times of continued struggle among Indians. If it is true that Political democracy cannot sustain without Social democracy, then this period of Constitutional politics must be indeed celebrated as Freedom struggle movement. It was the century of the Making of Present India. The test of patriotism therefore does not lie in participation in the Anti-colonial movement. The contribution towards the Constitutional politics is more apt in today’s times of continued struggle.

The constitutional politics plays an instrumental role in defining the present form of India as a Nation-in-the making. Therefore, at least in technical sense, India became free and got Total Independence (Swatantrya or Purna Swarajya) only on 26th January 1950.

The results of glorification of 15th August as Independence day therefore subverts the much needed Constitutional morality which is already lacking among Indians.

Like they say in New Zealand, Happy Dominion day !

 

References

[1] Swatantrata din ki Paheli - A research paper by Sumedh Ukey

[2] Constituent assembly debate proceedings.

[3] http://www.international.gc.ca/department/history-histoire/dcer/details-en.asp?intRefid=10567

[4] http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/dominion-status/symposium

[5] The Modern Law Review,Volume 12, Issue 3, Article first published online: 18 JAN
[6] Conditions precedent for the successful working of democracy, Dr. Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol 17 , Part THREE, page 480

[7] parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/debates.htm

1

Why is it becoming more and more uncomfortable to live within one’s own country, among people that we took for granted shared our view of the world? 2014 marked the year in which family and friends turned into aliens and opponents. Conversations invariably broke down at the point where Narendra Modi was seen as the great white hope for India. No logic worked against a recitation of the wrongs of UPA 2, plus AAP not being mature enough or ready, plus the magic word – ‘Development’ that a likely BJP government was going to deliver. One’s misgivings about Hindutva had to remain as mere mutterings, among the pitying looks of cousins and siblings.

Now 2017 has arrived as the year in which it is impossible to be in a crowded airport or railway station without wondering how many of the people around you will look on with interest at a mob lynching some innocent, and perhaps even justify the act  with arguments if you dare to protest.  After all, on social media, it is educated and articulate people who are trolling any criticism of hyper-nationalism or Gauraksha. The deep discomfort in crowds of any sort makes me wonder if I am having a serious mid-life crisis, or my country has changed into something so unrecognizable that I have begun to believe the worst of my neighbours  and acquaintances.

My being a believer has fed much of my work, producing books on pilgrims and seekers, and finding faith resilient in the poorest toymakers and street vendors. Yet, today, I have also become uncomfortable with the religion I was born into because I feel no identification whatsoever with those who are making loud claims in the name of that religion with no regard for facts, truth, or the feelings of their fellow citizens. And, although this is a mere blip in our ongoing relationship, I have also begun to express increasing discontent and despair to my personal God in the face of what I perceive to be evil getting increasingly rewarded around me.

So many questions confront me on any given day.  Was a bottomless reservoir of hate and bigotry always present amidst our people? How do today’s lynch mob leaders tap into this with a single WhatsApp message and collect an instant crowd? How many who go by the label ‘Hindu’ actually rejoice at the wounding or death of a Muslim fellow citizen in our country? Visceral questions, with no easy answers.

Till a few years back, crowds meant something else for me.  As I  walked with Varkaris to Pandharpur, joined the immense human congregation at the Mahakumbh in 2001, met kaanwariyas at the Haridwar Shravan mela and at Deoghar in Jharkhand, climbed to Tirupati and Vaishno Devi, I saw the transformative power of collective faith. Caste distinctions recede on such pilgrimages, when the fellow believer begins to be called by a generic name – ‘Mauli’ on the way to Pandharpur, or ‘Bam’ on the way to Deoghar. Sharing of resources, helping others when they are weary or tired, breaking into a song of prayer together, all this is behavior that is par for the course on such journeys. All the years when I walked alongside them, I never saw the crowds of the faithful as potential murderers.

And yet, from recent events, it is obvious that some of the killers of Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan may also have been pilgrims at some point. As I think of the kaanwariyas carrying water and walking hundreds of kilometres, I can’t help but wonder at whether the ordinarily devout, the Durga Puja attendees and katha organizers have become members of predatory mobs?

Any attempt to answer this question must undoubtedly make us reflect on why we have failed to strengthen the secular fabric of India.  Prof. Ashis Nandy, who wrote An Anti-Secularist Manifesto in 1995, and who writes in his seminal essay The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance, “I call myself an anti-secularist because I feel that the ideology and politics of secularism have more or less exhausted their possibilities”, has unpacked the concept of secularism painstakingly in the Indian context. Pointing out that religions in our part of the world have become split into religion-as-faith versus religion-as-ideology, he describes the latter as a “subnational, national, or cross national identifier of populations contesting for or protecting non-religious, usually political or socio-economic, interests.” For me, the religion as faith that I encountered as a pilgrim was distinct from the religion as Hindutva ideology that I abhor. The fudging of both by the SC verdict in the Manohar Joshi vs. N.B. Patil case in 1995 made it appear as if Hindutva was the sum of many cultural practices and beliefs, posing no threat to non-Hindus. But as we have seen so clearly in recent years, de facto Hindutva means aggressive posturing on the ground to pursue a nationalist agenda and protect distinct political and socio-economic interests.

If secularists have been unable to make such distinctions clear in the minds of citizens and voters, it is futile to once again hold Amit Shah and Narendra Modi responsible. Instead, it is clearly a result of secularists’ refusal to engage with questions of faith and identity in any meaningful way.  To many, religion and the way it is expressed around us seems too messy or backward to bother with. When I wrote in my books about the visible expressions of faith I had experienced first-hand, I often had friends wonder why I found the melas and the kaanwariyas so fascinating. Modernity, a desire for development, and a secular outlook means for many in my social milieu a complete disregard for the inconvenient, bedraggled, jugadu hordes of poor pilgrims struggling to reach temples and deities and holding up traffic in the NCR.

Kanwariyas
Kanwariyas

For such people longing for a ‘developed’ India that will leave all such messy struggles behind, a vote for Modi in 2014 actually meant a vote for an increased role for the private sector without the ball and chain of environmental safeguards dragging down corporate India. The rights of tribals and displaced communities, the increased disparities of income and the contrasts in urban India between utter comfort and utter despair didn’t cause upper middle class urban Indians to lose much sleep. As a society we have lived for far too long with the twin evils of entitlement and deprivation, and nothing in our environment encourages us to think beyond the interests of our family, caste, or class. Protecting secular discourse was not a priority for too many, unless it represented an attack on their own personal freedom.

Today when I share with my journalist friend Rahul Pandey a frustration with the lack of any political opposition to the tactics of the BJP, he says, “Na Ram hai, na Bam, sab chhalava hai.” (There is neither Ram, nor the Left, it is all wholesale fraud and deception.) He refuses to accept that the BJP is winning elections only on the basis of their WhatsApp armies.  “Why would WhatsApp work without any real work being put in?” he asks me. “The VHP have gone door to door, in village after village in UP, and tied dharm-raksha-sutra (Save your faith bands) around the wrists of lakhs of people in their homes. Which party can claim such cover? The Sanghis have conducted Swachhata Abhiyan (Cleanliness campaigns) in village after village. Their workers and volunteers remain visible to the public at all times. This is what makes their WhatsApp mobilization work.”

The Sangh and its affiliates have also perfected the art of silent communication at religious events with a cultural significance.  My activist friend Arvind Murti says, of a recent event around the Thrissur temple “I was there recently on an occasion where at least fifty thousand people were present, and a host of cultural activities were being put on. Not a single political leader from either the LDF or the UDF was present. The only visible leaders were from the Sangh umbrella organizations. It made me acutely conscious of how secular parties are missing important opportunities for communication by disregarding such occasions and festivals.” I knew exactly what he was talking about because I have been at the chariot festival of Chennai’s Kapaleeswar temple, when thousands of people converge in Mylapore in a completely apolitical celebration. However, the volunteers of VHP are still milling about among the people, distributing water and butter milk sachets. Somewhere, in interpreting  secularism as a lifestyle that shuns the mention of God or religion, secular parties and leaders have distanced themselves from  cultural practices that deliver their countrymen to the Sangh without protest or effort.

For Prof. Ashis Nandy, secularism and tolerance can only be recovered by re-connecting with the ideals of faith, not by denying them. He points to Gandhi as the believer whose compassion and tolerance stemmed from his religion, not in spite of it. For millions of poor Hindus, who have felt excluded from the prosperity of their secular, modern fellow citizens, the Sangh gives honorifics and titles that bring a role of prominence as an anti-Romeo squad member or a Gau Rakshak. Such actions may actually be bringing these people a legitimacy whose importance we are unable to comprehend from a position of eternal privilege.  If secularism’s goose is not to be well and truly cooked in India we have to prepare to move once more among our people and ask them the questions that matter. For this, it seems, we can depend on no political leader or party.

So if we are to reclaim the ground we have ceded to those who always talk of ‘hurt sentiments’ and explain each violent mob attack as an expression of the people’s emotions, we need to attack the idea of Hindus as victims. We need to bring such questions as the ones below in the public domain, whether through Whatsapp, social media or conversation. The idea of the majority community being victims in their own homeland is the biggest falsehood of the Sangh, being used to perpetuate fear and hatred in equal measure. ‘Have you ever been stopped from worshipping your favourite deity, or doing pooja in your homes?’ is something we can ask fellow Hindus. ‘If not, why do you feel insecure in your own home and country?’

‘Who are the people telling you your homes are in danger, your women are in danger? Don’t you believe your God is powerful enough to protect you and your family? Why then pick up arms and who do you want to attack?’

‘When you rush to attack and kill, whether for money/recognition/reward, don’t forget that you will have to account for it before your God. Yeh kaun sa Bhagwan hai  jo kisi insaan ko maarne ke liye majboor kar raha hai?

No great knowledge of religion or scriptures is needed to counter the majoritarian poison of the Sangh. All it needs is nudging the people to tap into their own faith of God being their protector, not the other way around. After all, in the crowds of pilgrims I used to travel with, each was seeking his or her own liberation, however hard and arduous the journey was.

Unfortunately, around a bend in the path and in our nation’s history, many of these seekers met not the God who would provide ‘mukti’, but the politician who demanded eternal slavery of mind and soul.

So are we, privileged and educated Hindus, up to having these conversations among ourselves?

Originally published here.

2

tr.v. blind·sid·ed, blind·sid·ing, blind·sides. 1. To hit or attack on or from the blind side. 2. To catch or take unawares, especially with harmful or detrimental results

Too much of a good thing, as the idiom goes, is bad. Excessively bright light can be more blinding than pitch darkness. The glare of the limelight, another popular adage, often hides smaller events in its daylight. Which is all to say by way of saying that democratic India has just (re)discovered the blinding effect of big numbers, even if in a relative sense. Take, for one example, 282 out of 545. Take, for another, 67 out of 70. Within the range of statistics thrown up by Indian politics, these are staggering numbers, even historic ones.

So what’s wrong with that? In one word: everything. Among the oft-touted clichés in India is that of the country being a plural democracy, of there being unity in diversity. But suddenly two elections have thrown up scarcely believable numbers. Admittedly, in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections there was hardly any credible opposition to the heavily PR-reliant campaign of Narendra Modi, but even the most clued in observer did not see such a massive mandate coming.

A virtual retake has just played out at the Delhi Assembly Elections, with the Aam Aadmi Party railroading all political opposition into virtual oblivion and winning a mandate that has left even their supporters bemused. Speculations of political hara-kiri by opponents abound now as well as they did during the Lok Sabha elections. Indeed there are some indicators of grave miscalculation, such as the drafting in of Kiran Bedi as the BJP’s potential CM candidate. Even so, the numbers are frightening.

The first question is, rather obviously, that of the health of our democracy. Does an absolute mandate truly imply that all voices speak as one? Or does it mean there are political manipulations beyond the comprehension of the average voter? The former cannot be seen as a good thing, even if it sounds cynical to see it as herd mentality than true consensus. The plurality and diversity of India have always ensured that one man’s Peter is another’s Paul, to mix metaphors. For everyone to see a messiah in one political choice is, at least for me, a hard fact to digest.

There are other voices that have addressed the latter question of political conspiracy, see, for instance, this piece by @Vidyut. I have already ranted on the existence of a “Bhangress” a seamless political unit manifesting partly as the Bharatiya Janata Party and partly as the Indian National Congress, which are in turn controlled by such capitalists as the Ambanis. A cartoon in The Hindu prior to last year’s Lok Sabha elections had shown Mukesh Ambani holding the strings of two puppets representing Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. The only question is whether the Aam Aadmi Party is/can become an extension to this amorphous political monster, allegations against the Ambanis by Arvind Kejriwal notwithstanding. This premise has gained fodder with the recent dismissal of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan from the AAP’s Political Affairs Committee in a move that seemed to have the tacit approval of Kejriwal himself. The Party’s upcoming National Council meeting might be the last word on its future, and it remains to be seen whether the coterie around Kejriwal, which is being accused of conspiring to commandeer power within the AAP, will result in the de-democratization of the Party, the efforts of volunteers notwithstanding.

Even assuming this does not come to pass – that Kejriwal’s AAP does represent, and continues to be, a reasonably honest political alternative, the teetering of electoral figures from one extreme to another suggests a deeper and more devastating malaise: a total political vacuum. This swing from voting en masse for the BJP to literally handing the town keys to the AAP is only a real life running from pillar to post by a frustrated and impatient electorate that wants to see change happen and preferably happen yesterday.

When the AAP first seemed poised to become a political entity of some reckoning, I had mused whether its failure to do so would see a return to type by those that had supported and elected it, i.e. would they go back to their candle-light dharnas at India Gate? That question still stands, if more nakedly now - if the AAP fails to deliver on even a fraction of their promises, will “India’s teeming millions” finally confront the problem they’ve been hiding under the limelight for so long? Will they finally fess up to their lack of imagination in choosing to pass the buck rather than find solutions until there is no one to whom the buck may be passed?

It is interesting to note the insistence by Kejriwal, at least at one point, upon understanding the notion of Swaraj, which may be translated without loss of meaning as self-governance. There is, of course, a delicious irony in choosing a government to help you self-govern, especially if one comprehends self-governance in the literal, individual sense rather than the collective sense of a citizenry. Swaraj, for me, does not equate with the political right to self-determination as a citizenry. In the Gandhian sense (which I hope I have understood correctly), the term refers to adopting a lifestyle that imposes on another life in the least manner possible while working to create a greater whole cohesively.

Perhaps Kejriwal hopes that the citizens of India will eventually become harmoniously functioning individual cogs within the interlinked machinery of society. But is he prepared to acknowledge that living breathing cogs are more likely to be anarchic rather than continuously operate under the guidance of a greater will, for the supposed greater good? Without even debating the patent absurdity of society as a machine, it remains to be seen whether the victory in 67 out of 70 assembly seats is indicative of Delhi’s citizens choosing to be such cogs, in the hope of, so to speak, a better life in a better city.