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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 14 New Delhi March 26, 2016

The Idea of India: Whose Idea of Which India?

Monday 28 March 2016, by S G Vombatkere


The Idea of India

The “Idea of India” is itself a relatively new concept epitomised in catch phrases like “Incredible India”, “Shining India”, “Make in India”, etc. It has been marketed so as to convert India as a preferred destination for tourism and foreign direct investment, in consonance with the holy grail of economic development through GDP growth based upon aggressive and unquestioned industrialisation-at-any-cost. Arguably, the “Idea of India” is promoted by the adherents of neo-liberal economics which effectively dictates politics.

Indians with formal education have an understanding of India in its cultural, geogra-phical and political senses, with variations according to their socio-economic environment, exposure and experience. Many people with, say, only primary school education also have their own “take” on what is India. But the pertinent point is that, whatever the manner in which an Indian understands “India”, what is (are) the feeling(s) that he/she has for that idea. A person who has never seen a map of India, and does not know of the existence of most of the States and the multiplicity of languages that make this diverse nation, would not begin to understand the country “India”, leave alone the nation “India”. What feelings can one expect such a person would have for India?

Feelings for India

A majority of India’s 1.25 billion citizens eke out a miserable existence on Rs 20 per day, and have little “national” interest beyond looking for the next meal. Noting that in 50 years starting 1950, over 50 million people have been displaced for dam-canal projects alone, millions even today are annually being added to this majority as forest and agricultural land is being taken from them for “infrastructure” projects including extractive and production industries. They do not understand India-the-nation (with its Constitution) or India-the-country (from its territorial map), but they certainly understand the power of the state which displaces, dispossesses and pauperises them, often accom-panied by police violence. True, an under-standing of the power of the vote has reached the remotest corners of India, but people who vote, only vaguely understand what the State Assembly or Parliament means to them. They have zero access to persons in power to speak about their needs and problems, leave alone their aspirations, even assuming that persons in power are interested in listening.

However, many such people do know that they live in so-and-so State (for example, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, etc.), know that the ultimate power over their lives lies with the “sarkar”, and that government official—local bureaucrats, forest officials, police officials—are the arbiters of their fate. But more importantly, even if they did fully understand the idea of India-the-country and India-the-nation, they cannot possibly have kind feelings for an “India” which deprives them of what they have, and abandons them to an uncaring, often hostile, social system which operates on caste, commu-nity and language bases.

It is well to repeat that this concerns a majority of Indians who live in forest and rural areas and urban slums. To them, “nation” may mean the society to which they belong and with which they interact, including especially the aforementioned government officials. When an individual is a victim of economic violence, gets little or nothing from society, and keeps getting depressed socially and economically, (s)he can have little love for that society. It does not take much imagination to understand that herein lie the seeds of discontent, protest, militancy and terrorism.

Threat to the “Idea of India”

Social and economic inequalities are glaring in our Indian context. The gap between the privileged and the deprived, or between the powerful and the disempowered, or between the wealthy and the poor is large and increasing. The “upper castes” bear down on “lower castes” and “outcastes”, and society continues to give more to those who are already better off, and less to those who are needy. And even though the Constitution of India assures every citizen justice, equality and liberty, the elected persons who are sworn to implement its lofty principles are mostly in its wilful breach or neglect.

At the top end of the spectrum, members of a minority (perhaps the “top-five-per-cent”) uses its power and wealth to govern, and unhesitatingly uses means, fair or foul, legal and illegal, to increase their own wealth and influence, and seek luxury, physical comfort and personal enjoyment. It is this top-five-per-cent, very influential section of society, many prominent members of which are involved in monstrous corruption scams, which prescribes what is patriotism, and demands patriotism from everybody else. It decides what is development and rejects other ideas as anti-development, it decides what is the national interest and brands all else as anti-national. And most regrettably, a tiny section of this top-five-per-cent uses its influence and power to raise mob sentiments and target those whom they see as threat to their selfish designs.

The threat is the common and sometimes not-so-common (wo)man who dares. S/he speaks truth to power (for example, Medha Patkar), questions decisions (for example, Soni Sori), expresses radical points of view (for example, Teesta Setalvad), expresses dissent (for example, S.P. Udayakumar), or holds alternate opinions (for example, G.N. Saibaba). Such persons are dealt with by using the force of law—as distinct from the protection provided, sometimes but not always, by justice—by filing criminal, including sedition, cases, and subjecting them to prolonged legal processes, including detention and torture, and denial of bail. Some inconvenient persons (for example, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi) are eliminated by self-appointed vigilantes, or through extra-judicial killings or “encounters” arranged by shadowy and unaccountable agencies of the state. Of course, dissension and alternative points of view are also witnessed in the three levels of legislative governance, but this is increasingly seen as shadow-boxing or sparring between parties which seek to perpetuate the power system.

Patriotism, Love for India, and Nationalism

A soldier, who serves in difficult border areas and risks his life and limb (and many lose them) in defending India against intrusions and attacks from neighbouring countries, and is also constantly deployed in internal security and disaster relief, is the epitome of a patriot. True, some errant soldiers commit crimes, but that does not devalue the national service of the members of the defence forces, which are the last resort of the Government of India. A soldier meets people from all over the country since he is posted all over the country and serves with other soldiers hailing from all over the country, and understands India-the-country. For him, the national flag represents everything for which he fights, and routinely faces risks and hardship in the service of what he understands as India-the-nation.

The soldier exists to defend the nation against its enemies, but we need to remember that the “enemy” is defined by the state, namely, the national executive-legislature-judiciary. If this definition includes or targets those who question government decisions and policies, and dissent with its executive and legislative actions, then the soldier willy-nilly becomes an instrument of misuse of state force. Sadly, the civil instruments of state force, namely, the State and Central Armed Police Forces, have been in the unenviable position of being “tools of coercion” over past decades of governments in the States and Centre ruled by different political parties.

Enter JNU

At a students’ meeting at JNU, held to mark the anniversary of Afzal Guru’s execution, slogans against India and favouring Pakistan were heard. The anti-India content of the slogans have been condemned by one and all. The ABVP accuses the Leftist JNU students (and in particular, Kanhaiya Kumar, its Students’ Union President) with raising these slogans, and condemns their holding a meeting to “support” Afzal Guru, who was tried, convicted, condemned to death and executed. In response, the JNUSU President and others stoutly deny using such slogans, allege that persons who uttered these slogans were ABVP infiltrators, and maintain that the meeting was not to praise Afzal Guru but to protest the death sentence awarded to him, and criticise policies and actions of the Union Government.

Forensic examination appears to show that some of the videos (apparently shot with mobile phones) of the meeting which were used to “prove” that anti-national slogans were raised by JNUSU students, were morphed. The Delhi Police, directly under the Union Home Ministry, moved in on a tip-off (some allege prior infor-mation) by the ABVP, and arrested Kanhaiya Kumar and others for sedition under IPC Sec 124-A. The Union Home Ministry maintains that anti-national activities must and will be dealt with severely. On the other hand, most JNU teachers and some Opposition political parties, which have jumped into the fray, maintain that even if anti-national slogans were raised, it cannot justify police action in a university, and anyway certainly not charges of sedition. They argue that protesting against the government is not anti-national, and is a part of democratic tradition in keeping with the Constitution.

Battle-lines Drawn, Soldiers Involved

The foregoing is not to justify or vilify one or another side of the affair, but to show that battle-lines have been drawn. On the one hand, there is the ABVP claiming to protect the nation against anti-national people. On the other hand, Left-leaning JNUSU students claim that they respect the Constitution of India, are not anti-national, and are determined to continue protests against the government. Thus we are presented with a so-called binary, with one side claiming to define what is anti-national and the other side demanding the right of dissent and democratic protest. This binary has been emphasised by the ABVP and its parent BJP, by holding up the very recent example of Lance Naik Hanumanthappa, one of the ten casualties of an avalanche on the Siachen glacier, to show up the Left-leaning students as anti-national for supporting Afzal Guru while being uncaring for the patriotism of soldiers who sacrifice their lives in the service of the nation. Thus, the patriotic Indian soldier has been willy-nilly dragged into a position of getting counterpoised against “anti-nationals”.

This is particularly sad as well as dangerous, since the serving Indian soldier is the most secular Indian citizen. He is an Indian first and foremost, and religious institutions of all religions (temple, mosque, church, gurudwara) are maintained in units, and all soldiers, regardless of their personal religious faiths, take part in all religious functions and celebrations of all the religions. Soldiers are, by law, prohibited from becoming members of any religious association while in service, though they are encouraged to attend religious institu-tions within the units and headquarters, as mentioned above, and can (and do) worship at temple/mosque/church/gurudwara when on leave.

It is well to recall a quip which was doing the rounds recently. A civilian friend asked: “What is the percentage of Muslims in the Indian Army?” The answer he received was: “Zero.” The response went further to say that there were also no Hindus in the Army nor Christians, etc., because there were only Indians in our Indian Army. That is to say that when a Hindu soldier dies, he does not die for the Hindus of India, and when a Muslim soldier dies, he does not die for the Muslims of India; all soldiers serve, fight and die for all Indians of India.

Threat to the Constitution

In furtherance of defining “national”, the ABVP called on retired soldiers (Veterans) to join them in meetings and marches under the national flag in various places across the country. This is perfectly legal because a Veteran is at liberty to join any religious, social or political association according to his wish and choice. But, and here is a capital BUT, the strong existing organic bond between the retired and the serving soldier can very easily cause serving soldiers to begin taking sides on the basis of religion. This will irrevocably destroy the secular nature of the strictly apolitical Indian military, bringing it under the influence of religious leaders, and compromising its control by the civilian government. This (hopefully un-thought-out) move of the BJP can easily slip into a situation like in Islamic Republics in India’s neighbourhood, where the military is virtually under the control of the mullahs. This would definitely be violative of the Constitution of India, which defined India as a secular Republic, even before the word was inserted into its Preamble in 1976.

Back to the Idea of India

The current face-off between the self-professed pro-nation BJP and the allegedly anti-national Leftists, brings into sharp focus the question of what India-the-country and/or India-the-nation means to the common Indian. It really begs for a more accurate description of who really is the “common Indian”. Statistically, one might “define” the common Indian as the person with the average (mean) wealth. But with 140 Indian dollar billionaires, whose aggregate wealth exceeds 25 per cent of the national GDP, and around 70 per cent of the Indians living on less than Rs 20 per day, the statistical “mode” would be much more representative, and perhaps fall close to the Rs 20-per-day segment. And we have already discussed how a person from this stratum of society would understand and view India-the-country and/or India-the-nation.

The created binary situation also calls to attention the questions whether the idea of “India” is open to interpretation and ownership by one or other person, group or political party.

Receding Democratic Scenario

The Constitution decrees that no person shall be deprived of life and liberty except with due process of law. Accordingly, rightly or wrongly, Kanhaiya Kumar has been charged with sedition, and he will be duly tried in a Court of Law. Notwithstanding, two persons have publicly offered cash rewards (prize money) to any person who will deprive Kanhaiya Kumar of his life and liberty — Rs 11 lakhs for shooting him dead, and Rs 5 lakhs for cutting off his tongue.

The rule of law has collapsed as the Delhi Police, under the Union Home Ministry, has merely booked the Rs 11 lakh donor with defacing public property for pasting his printed posters on walls. The Rs 5 lakh donor has been expelled for six years from his political party. What is common among the two “offers” is that both gentlemen belong to the Sangh Parivar, and the Union Government and the party which runs it have effectively treated these “public offers” as infringements, without condemnation of the spirit behind the “offers” and their potential to cause death and consequent public disorder. Thus vigilantism by incitement to violence is blatantly visible in broad daylight.

During the earlier UPA dispensations, a dissenter had only to be wary of the government with which argument in Court against a charge was possible. But today, argument with a vigilante mob is impossible, especially as the government is a silent (and not disapproving) spectator. An extra-legal entity can now decide on conviction for a “crime” defined by itself, and pass a death sentence with impunity. The idea of a democratic India with the rule of law appears to be a rapidly receding scenario.

Bottom Line

The JNUSU and its Left supporters dissent with and decry the economic policies of the Union Government as being crony-capitalist, anti-poor and pro-corporate, and the cause for mass population displacement, farmers’ suicides and pauperisation of millions. They have not, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, considered the possiblity of destruction of the secular nature of India’s military, and consequent majoritarian militarism in India, which will inevitably destroy democracy.

The BJP, on the other hand, continues to allow, if not actually orchestrate, its loose cannons to make blatantly anti-constitutional and illegal statements, perhaps claiming that it is righteous anger against “anti-national” behaviour.

The current situation calls to attention whether the idea of nationalism is open to inter-pretation by one or other person, group or political party, and whether the “Idea of India” is open to brand ownership, especially when a majority of citizens cannot conceive of India-the-country or India-the-nation.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired as the Additional DG, Discipline and Vigilance in the Army HQ AG’s Branch. He holds a Ph.D degree in Structural Dynamics from IIT, Madras. With over 460 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.

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