By Inderjit Badhwar
One of the saddest hours befell Indian democracy in May 1990. During a stormy and unruly session of the Rajya Sabha when Congress (I), the defeated now-in-opposition party led by Rajiv Gandhi, was playing havoc with established norms of parliamentary conduct, the chairman and vice president of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma wept like a child.
His body was wracked by uncontrollable heaving and sobbing following insults hurled at him from unruly law makers of the upper house. A former Congressman and a devotee of fair play who took his duties as chairman and vice president with the utmost seriousness, he had been trying desperately to tame the unruly members. Among the abuses hurled at him was the now infamous line from Congress Voice Brigade stalwart KK Tewari: “Dr Sharma’s hysterical rantings have not served the cause of democracy.” The hapless vice president was heard pleading: “Shoot me, but don’t murder democracy…come and throttle me….”
This incident reverberated internationally. Indian democracy and the Nehru-Gandhi legacy of propriety and constitutionalism cut a sorry figure across the world. Rajiv Gandhi’s carefully cultivated global image as an Officer and a Gentleman took a beating.
The BJP’s leaders, stalwarts like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani considered such shameful shenanigans a blot on Indian democracy. In a histo-rical irony, 25 years later, some of this same party’s members and spiritual and political mentors are mounting gratuitous attacks on Vice President Hamid Ansari which appear to be at complete variance with the image of a tolerant, vigorously democratic, equal opportunity-oriented India that Prime Minister Modi is trying to promote in his Western odysseys designed to attract geopolitical sympathy and investment lucre to India.
Hamid Ansari is no pushover. He is no Uncle Tom. He disparages every form of religious extremism. He is a sworn enemy of Muslim bigotry and the idea of a uniform Islamic world. His accomplishments would do any nation—even a “Hindu Rash-tra”—proud. In the cause of Bharat Mata he has served in the Indian Foreign Service in Baghdad, Rabat, Jeddah and Brussels. He was chief of protocol to Government of India, high commissioner to Australia, ambassador to Afghanistan and Iran, permanent representative to the UN, and vice-chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University.
He certainly does not need any more credential recognition. Yet, starting with a falsely leveled accusation from BJP general secretary Ram Madhav that he had deliberately refused to attend PM Modi’s Inter-national Yoga Day, Ansari has become the lightning rod for intolerant vitriol. As one commentator remarked: “In what should have been a celebration of Indian culture on the world stage became (instead) petty politics, and aimed at one of the most prominent Muslim leaders in India.”
This could hardly bode well for Modi’s image abroad, the new, post-2002 moderate/modernist development-pushing statesman he has been projecting, especially in light of President Obama’s crass warning, articulated on Indian soil in public, that India should be careful on matters of tolerance of different faiths.
Even though Madhav deleted his tweet in the face of facts, it did little to inspire faith at home from opinion shaping commentators: The late, irrepressible Vinod Mehta tweeted on June 22: “…shame in the name of human being. And what else to say about his mentor narendra modi! #IStandWithHamidAnsari.”
Said commentator KC Singh: “What worsens the error is that it isn’t a loose cannon from BJP’s Rt flank but Ram Madhav, prima donna linking BJP/RSS.”
Shekhar Gupta: “Short, polite note of apology from Ram Madhav & BJP Pres to VP Hamid Ansari will cut the losses. This needs more than a mere delete.” The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle tweeted: “Ram Madhav should try not to practice bigotry.”
The stage for these attacks had been set with accusations that Ansari had failed to salute the flag on Republic Day (never mind that he had proudly flown the national tricolor at every embassy and mission abroad as Bharat’s representative). Yet, he is being dogged by terms like “anti-India”, “Jihadi-sympathiser” and “traitor.”
This is McCarthyism in its most hideous form. The vice president is an easy, soft, target. He has no platform from which to defend himself. The latest round of Ansari-bashing from the far right is because he has advocated “affirmative action” to help Muslims get more education and equal opportunities for socio-economic advancement. In attacking him for advocating this, RSS-BJP ideologues are actually pointing the gun at their own position on this subject.
BJP leaders like Advani and RSS ideologues like the late Prof Rajendra Singh have defined appeasement (tushtikaran) as the use by secular parties of Muslims as vote banks to perpetuate their political primacy instead of addressing the real economic and educational problems of minorities. What was Vice Pre-sident Ansari advocating that was so different from this point of view?
In fact, Ansari was merely reiterating with renewed vigor the dust-gathering findings of the government appointed Justice Sachar and Justice Ranganath Mishra groups whose reports were tabled in 2010.
The Government of India constituted Justice Sachar Committee for preparation of a report on the social, economic and educational status of Muslim community of India, and Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission for identifying criteria for socially and economically backward classes among the religious and linguistic minorities, and to suggest various welfare measures for minorities including reservation. Both the Committee and the Commission have submitted their reports.
The introduction to the reports reads: “It has been established by Sachar Committee and Ranganath Mishra Commission reports that Muslims in India are most backward community despite their rich cultural heritage and strong numerical presence…. The Minorities communities will certainly be benefitted at large, when these two reports are implemented in true word and spirit.”
- Here are excerpts:
While there is considerable variation in the conditions of Muslims across states, (and among the Muslims, those who identified themselves as OBCs and others), the Com-munity exhibits deficits and deprivation in practically all dimensions of development. Mechanisms to ensure equity and equality of opportunity to bring about inclusion should be such that diversity is achieved and at the same time the perception of discrimination is eliminated. This is only possible when the importance of Muslims as an intrinsic part of the diverse Indian social mosaic is squarely recognized.
- The Committee recommends that an Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) should be constituted by the government to look into the grievances of the deprived groups. An example of such a policy tool is the UK Race Relation Act, 1976. While providing a redressal mechanism for different types of discrimination, this will give a further re-assurance to the minorities that any unfair action against them will invite the vigilance of law.
- In a pluralistic society, a reasonable representation of various communities in government sector employment is necessary to enhance participatory governance. The presence of Muslims was found to be only 3% in the IAS, 1.8% in the IFS and 4% in the IPS. Overall, Muslims constituted only 4.9% of candidates who appeared in the written examination of Civil Services in the years 2003 and 2004. Share of Muslims in employment in various departments is abysmally low at
Vice President Ansari has not broken into tears as did his more emotional and fragile predecessor SD Sharma. But obliquely, he recently delivered a learned riposte to the growing illiberality and intolerance for dissent or opinions unpalatable to the government that seems to be sweeping across the nation, in the first Ram Manohar Lohia Lecture at ITM University, Gwalior. Excerpts:
- In 1950 the People of India gave themselves a Constitution that promised to secure to all citizens, inter alia, “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.” This was given a concrete shape by the specific rights guaranteed by Articles 19 and 25 and the associated framework ensuring their implementation. The past six-and-a-half decades have witnessed the manner, and the extent, of their actualization.
- The Constitution was not crafted in a vacuum. It was preceded by the Freedom Move-ment and the values enunciated in it. These were formally encapsulated in the Objectives Resolution of January 22, 1947. At the same time the Constitution-makers, or some amongst them, were not unaware of the
pitfalls. In his speech at the end of the drafting process in the Constituent Assembly, Ambed-kar had warned about the impending “life of contradictions.”
- The quest for correctives often found expre-ssion through assertions relating to freedom of expression and its concomitant, the concept of dissent. It is concept that contains within it the democratic right to object, oppose, protest and even resist. Cumulatively it can be defined as the unwillingness in an individual or group to cooperate with an established authority—social, cultural or governmental. In that sense, it is associated with critical thinking since, as Albert Einstein put it, “blind faith in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
- Dissent as a right has been recognized by the Supreme Court of India as one aspect of the right of the freedom of speech guaranteed as a Fundamental Right by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The court has observed that “the restrictions on the freedom of speech must be couched in the narrowest possible terms” and that the proviso of Article 19(2) is justiciable in the sense that the restrictions on it have to be “reasonable” and cannot be arbitrary, excessive or disproportionate.
- In the globalizing world of today and in most countries having a democratic fabric, the role of civil society in the articulation of dissent has been and continues to be comprehensively discussed; so does the question of its marginalization or suppression.
- Despite the unambiguously stated position in law, civil society concerns about constraints on the right of dissent in actual practice have been articulated powerfully. “On the surface,” wrote one of our eminent academics some time back, “Indian democracy has a cacophony of voices. But if you scratch the surface, dissent in India labours under an immense maze of threats and interdictions.” Referring to the then new reporting requirements for NGOs, he said:
“Nothing is more fatal for disagreements and dissent than the idea that all of it can be reduced to hidden sub-texts or external agendas…. The idea that anyone who disagrees with my views must be the carrier of someone else’s subversive agenda is, in some ways, deeply anti-democratic. It does away with the possibility of genuinely good faith disagreement. It denies equal respect to citizens because it absolves you of taking their ideas seriously. Once we have impugned the source, we don’t have to pay attention to the contents of the claim…This has serious consequences for dissent.”
This was written in 2012. It is a moot point if, given the Pavlovian reflexes of the Leviathan, things would have changed for the better since then. Informed commentaries suggest the contrary.
Every citizen of the Republic has the right and the duty to judge. Herein lies the indispensability of dissent.