By Father Myron Pereira SJ*
In August 2017, India celebrated its 70th anniversary of becoming an independent nation. In the constitution, which it gave to itself in November 1949, the group of 363 men who formed the Constituent Assembly, mostly Hindus, pledged to make the nation “a sovereign, secular, socialist, democratic republic.”
Every Jan. 26, marking the day of promulgation of the constitution in 1950, we Indians pledge ourselves anew to these solid republican values. This is what Republic Day means. But have we succeeded? This is the question that needles us today.
The reasons for this are not hard to find. Though the constitution defines us as “a sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic,” the reality in this country is far from this.
Look around — we still remain a feudal country with a medieval mindset; the government thrives on patronage, extortion and flattery; people cringe before their government for whatever concessions it can wrest from it; people’s loyalty is first of all to caste and its myriad ramifications and sanctions; and people prize faith and religion before the constitution, law and civic duty.
To fashion a nation out of a disparate people was our task after independence. It was especially difficult to do this using democratic means, unlike our South Asian neighbors who quickly slipped into dictatorships. There were regressions along the way, yes. During the Emergency, for example, we flirted a bit with dictatorship, and many institutions built up painstakingly over the years were sabotaged.
The slow erosion hasn’t stopped. Today it seems more and more that while we play along with the outward decorations of nationhood, our real engagement is with building grandiose temples and statues; with disenfranchising large groups within the civic community; waging war against our own people — “terrorists,” “Maoists” and “anti-nationals”; and undermining education, agriculture, health care, livelihood and respect for each other.
So rather than a sovereign democratic republic, our nation has begun to resemble more and more a dynastic medieval kingdom, locked into its own fantasies of a glorious past.
This is why our so-called democracy — “the largest in the world” — is in fact merely nominal, not substantive. It is an “electoral democracy” where the focus is on getting elected somehow, somewhere, in order to loot the public exchequer. There is no emphasis on performance, on accountability to the electorate, most of whom our legislators and parliamentarians secretly despise. We have regressed into a feudal state.
So what is the vision of India as a nation today?
At the time of independence and during the decades leading up to it, there were competing visions of what free India should be.
The vision which succeeded, and which has engaged the vast majority of our countrymen until now, was that of a diverse but inclusive nation as envisaged by hundreds of our freedom fighters.
It was the vision of a democratic and secular nation, not dynastic and faith-based, committed to improving the lot of the poor (socialist), committed to removing the fatalistic inertia which had bogged our nation for centuries.
Although this was the dominant vision over the last 70 years, its details were increasingly sabotaged by those who ruled us. Here is one reason why India is still so desperately poor and so irredeemably corrupt despite the definite progress that also exists.
The other competing vision was that of Jinnah and the Muslim League. It was not a vision inspired by inclusiveness and progress, but by fear — the fear that the Muslim community, having ruled the subcontinent for 900 years, would be reduced to slavery under a Hindu government. The League demanded and fought for a separate political state on the basis of religious faith — Islam — and through British connivance and perfidy, they got it. Thus was the nation of Pakistan founded, in two places at one time.
In 25 years, this experiment collapsed, as Muslim fought Muslim in Pakistan itself, to give birth to a new nation in the east, Bangladesh. The lesson? Religious faith can no longer be the sole basis for a nation in today’s world, and Pakistan is a standing proof of its failure.
But there was still a third vision of what India should become: the vision of the Hindu right, the Hindu Mahasabha and its successor, the RSS. For these, Hindustan was exclusively for the Hindus, those who considered this country their fatherland and their holy land, as the ideologue Savarkar put it. Others could be there only on sufferance.
Like right-wing parties everywhere, RSS stood for establishment religion, property, caste, patriarchy and authoritarianism. Even more, they took their cue from the European fascist movements of the 1930s — Mussolini and Hitler specially — and longed to duplicate such rule in this country. Their leaders and several others — Brahmin in origin, fascist in ideology — had an upper-caste contempt for the majority of other Indians (tribal, Dalits, other “backward castes” (shudras), women, of course) and sheer hatred for those aliens, Christians and Muslims.
During the first decades of independence, as Nehru’s government struggled to build a nation out of poverty, illiteracy, caste factions and linguistic divisions, the RSS-Jan Sangh (predecessor of the BJP) stood little chance in electoral politics.
But as the Congress party grew increasingly corrupt and enmeshed in the politics of dynasty, and as the socialist economy of the country failed dismally in providing food, shelter and clothing for the masses, the Hindu right slowly asserted itself. It created the canard that Hindus were oppressed in their own country because Muslims were being appeased. In assertion, they came up with the “masjid” ploy — the destruction of a medieval mosque and a plan to erection of a grandiose “Ram temple” over it.
The BJP has never looked back since.
Today with BJP leader Narendra Modi at its helm, it stands poised to sweep the whole country under one saffron flag and reinstate the Hindu moral code of ancient lawgiver Manu (manusmriti) in place of our national constitution.
In place of an inclusive polity, it shrewdly practices the old colonial policy of divide and rule, breaking up communities on the basis of what they eat and drink, what films they can see, whom they can marry, where they work.
What they call a nation is in reality a pseudo-nation, a medieval kingdom really, where sants and mahants boss over governance, and Brahmins and banias manipulate the economy. And just as it was in Hitler’s Germany, a section of the community is targeted, ostracized, persecuted and progressively impoverished.
Really, have we regressed so far in all this time? Has it taken us 70 years to belittle our constitution and become what Pakistan is today — a failed state, a corrupt and fundamentalist nation, a terrorist haven? It would seem so.
Although the BJP slogan sab ka vikas, sab ke saath (with all, for the progress of all) looks attractive on paper, the ground reality seems more like sab ka vinash, BJP ke saath (with BJP, for the destruction of all).
So what of our future?
If Muslims and Christians are called “people of the book,” it’s time that the vast multitudes in this country — the Hindu majority — became “people of the book of the constitution” and took to heart its fundamental values. It’s time they demanded accountability from their elected representatives to its guiding directives.
But for this, we must read the constitution, understand it and implement it. The constitution is not a book for the shelves, but a book for the street, for the courts, for the public forum. It was crafted by gifted, dedicated Indians as a template for this nation’s future. It must not be sabotaged by bogus Indians to drag this nation, kicking and screaming, back into a wretched feudal past.
*Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.