Wednesday, November 25, 2020
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Through The Covid Looking Glass

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By Inderjit Badhwar

I write this on the eve of India’s 74th Independence Day. In researching it, I chanced upon an essay I wrote on the occasion of the nation’s 68th anniversary (Republic Day). In it, I reproduced what I considered to be some of the most stirring phrases of leaders who had fought for the nation’s independence and many of whom lived on to become members of the new country’s Constituent Assembly.

The most striking ones are those most of us memorised during our formative years in school. But they are worth repeating during our spell under the Covid-19 despair in the same spirit as we repeat birthday, Christmas and Diwali jingles and good wishes year after year. So here’s the flashback:

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge. … At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”—Jawaharlal Nehru. “The sanctity of law can be maintained only so long as it is the expression of the will of the people.”—Bhagat Singh. “Every Indian should now forget that he is a Rajput, a Sikh or a Jat. He must remember that he is an Indian.”—Sardar Patel. “We believe in peace and peaceful development, not only for ourselves but for people all over the world.”—Lal Bahadur Shastri. “If yet your blood does not rage, then it is water that flows in your veins. For what is the flush of youth, if it is not of service to the motherland.”—Chandra Shekhar Azad.

I have an admission to make. While I am moved by these inspiring words of India’s greatest sons and daughters, I prize one poem above all. It is my personal national anthem, written by the bard Iqbal. “Sare jahan se achha, Hindustan hamara/Hum bubulein hain iske/Yeh Gulsitan hamara….Mazhab nahin sikhaata/Aapas mein bair rakhna/Hindi hain hum watan hai/Hindustan Hamara.” Beatific sentiments… (“We Hindis—not Hindus—but Hindis, the diverse people of Hindustan, live in the greatest nation on earth. We are taught to love all religions.”)

Iqbal also intones: Roma, Mishar, and Yunan/Sab mit gaye jahan se’ Kuschh baat hai ki hast mitati nahin hamaari/Sadiyon raha hai dushman daur-e-jaman hamara. (Rome, Egypt, and Greek civilisations have disappeared from the face of the earth. There is something in us that sustains us forever; for centuries, though our enemy has been at our doorstep.”)

Iqbal wrote this before India was given her grand Constitution. I believe he was convinced that India’s indomitable spirit preserved her through the ages. I also believe that it is this ineffable spirit that gave birth to the Constitution. This document provides institutional protection to the Republic in which the people are sovereign, are guaranteed certain basic rights and are governed according to their will and the supremacy of the rule of law.

But many things have changed since January 26, 1950, when our Founding Fathers gifted us this Republic. Have we been able to keep our republic? While we have established our national government and fundamental laws, we need to examine whether the separation of powers between the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature operates as it should. This is a critical system of checks and balances that ensures the sovereignty of the people and accountability of the government.

When our Founding Fathers adopted the parliamentary Westminster system from England, it may have been suitable at the time. But today, as the government has spread its tentacles into every aspect of our personal lives, the challenge is to keep Executive excesses in check. It is not possible when the Legislature—our Parliament—is a slavish extension of the Executive. The minister who is in the Executive branch cannot be expected to police himself when he is simultaneously a legislator and also in charge of the civil services. Both, under the doctrine of separation of powers, are expected to be watchdogs over the Executive in order to ensure that it carries out legislative mandates and does not exceed the authority given to it by Parliament.

It is also incongruous when, under an archaic British law still in the statute books, a state government can order the dropping of criminal charges against its legislators and supporters stemming from violations when its members were not in elected office.

We need to seriously look at constitutional changes that will guarantee the independence of legislators as powerful guardians against fraud, waste and corruption. How we can do that is another story. But for the time being, the Judiciary seems to be playing that role.

Social tensions and internecine hatred and violence and bigoted resistance to free expression and lifestyles are mounting. India’s venerable Supreme Court has mostly risen above politics. It has tried to grapple with Executive excesses such as the misuse of Article 356 and assaults on the right to privacy.

But in this surcharged atmosphere of the politicisation of the steel frame of Indian governance, exemplified by politicians calling for the impeachment of a sitting chief justice, will India as a nation rise above its baser instincts on the strengths of the common sense and goodwill of its own people?

My hunch is that India survives the worst and emerges stronger. After our bloody Partition, what emerged was a stronger India, aflame with poverty and exploitation, yet led by wise men and women who kept anarchy and class warfare at bay with minimal repression. There were famines in the early years, caste discrimination, misogyny, patriarchal hegemony, mistreatment of widows, outbursts of religious savagery…but the idea of a constitutional India guided by principles of liberty and the rule of law held.

Iqbal Sahib’s idea of Sare Jahan Se Achha will probably hold and survive. But men and women of wisdom will have to constantly re-examine the Constitution and model it to suit India’s changing political and social priorities. They will have to focus on empowering people so that the Executive branch is kept in check through a more innovative system of the separation of powers.

We need more than just words and roadshows to move this nation into its manifest destiny as envisaged by those who led us into our freedom. I recently drove through central and west Uttar Pradesh, often promoted as a state (India’s most populous) into which multinationals and local entrepreneurs are rushing to invest. Roads like bomb craters. Abandoned high-rise buildings on the fringes of cities. Twenty-hour power cuts with most villages barely even boasting of a single light bulb. Invisible infrastructure. Unemployed, angry youth. Distressed farmers. Distress sales alongside food inflation. Closed small industries. Robberies and murders rising. (Read about a farmer crushed to death under a tractor in his own field by loan sharks and recovery agents) ….

…..then switched on the telly in Delhi and relaxed to the news on NDTV with Vikram Chandra and a suave red-turbaned reporter and FICCI types with their pseudo Brit accents ex­tolling “shining India” as the world’s greatest investment destination, and Prime Minister Modi’s debut in snow-covered ski resort Davos, hyped as an earth-shattering event, while the bottom scroll on the TV set talked about the raging senseless violence of censorship and communal hatred over the release of the mythological film Padmaavat

I felt like Alice walking through the Looking Glass. Which world was I living in? A PR dream nourished by a fawning, overfed media, or a reality show of an uncaring political burlesque?

PostScript: Has anything changed? Not really. Only difference is that the Covid Monster has now brought the clash of these ideals and realities into sharper focus.

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