The Indian nation is built, not just born
For Independence Day, a reminder that India is still in the making
In politics we recognize the principle of “one man, one vote”, and “one vote, one value”. But by reason of our social and economic structure, we continue to deny the principle of “one man, one value.” How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? – B. R. Ambedkar, 1949
Every August 15, the people of India celebrate Independence Day and recall with nostalgia the birth of our nation into freedom.
But nations are not just born, they are also constructed. True, the citizens of a nation usually have a common ethnic background and origin, but they also share common values.
These values are aspirational; that is, they look not so much to the past, as to the future. They tell us not so much what the people were, or from where they came, but what they desire to achieve and to become.
This is what we mean by saying that “nations are constructed”, that they are still “in the making”.
India may be an ancient civilization, but it is still a very young nation. And because it is young and inexperienced, it has to learn many things.
In 1789, the French Revolution bequeathed to humankind three words that have since inspired millions across the globe: liberty, equality and fraternity (or, as I prefer to say, “community”).
In 1950, India reaffirmed these values for itself, and constituted itself as “a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic”, pledging to ensure “justice, freedom, equality and fraternity” for all its citizens.
This was the idea of India with which we built a new nation. This was the idea of India we grew up with, and feel comfortable with, even though we realize much remains to make ours a more prosperous, egalitarian and inclusive society.
In the past, many commentators considered this declaration, coming from a feudal, impoverished and largely illiterate society, as “the strangest of all political anomalies”, and waited for the nation to collapse upon itself. They waited in vain.
While neighboring countries fragmented into secession and civil war, our political resolution held firm. We remained a “democratic republic”. There was no going back on that pristine resolve.
But democracy as a manner of seeing and acting upon the world has also changed the relation of Indians to themselves.
Which brings me to the present: there is another idea of India in circulation today, which publicly challenges the democratic ideal, and secretly works to sabotage it.
It is the idea of India as the home not of an egalitarian and inclusive society, committed to freedom and justice, but of a majoritarian state, based on privilege, exclusivism and extortion.
A minority within the majority promotes this other idea of India.
This minority is well described in the expression, brahmin-bania. There is a brahminical or upper-caste minority, well entrenched in government and the bureaucracy, and determined that its grip on power will not be shared with “other” backward castes, tribals and Dalits. Especially not with women.
There is also a corporate business class, grown obese on tax write-offs and concessions, which uses this country merely as a source of raw materials and labor, while it looks abroad for profit and pleasure.
What is the “new” idea of India that this group promotes?
For a start, it is not new, but very old – feudal and medieval. It believes in privilege granted through birth, and enshrined in caste. It emphasizes religious rituals as a way to shape majoritarian thinking, and looks at “other” faith communities as foreign, corrupt and barely to be tolerated.
The only genuine citizens of the nation are those of the majoritarian community.
This “new” idea of India is disseminated, first of all, through indoctrination. Textbooks for the young, and TV programs for the old, promote the idea of an omniscient indigenous culture, smug and self-sufficient.
Lies and distortion help to glorify the past. Inconvenient facts are blacked out, for if “it isn’t in the media, it doesn’t exist”.
The “new” idea is allowed to thrive due to censorship, whether through government diktat or through the brute vandalism of goons. “Kill one, terrorize a thousand”, as the old saying goes.
Today almost all societies want modernity and development for their citizens. But simultaneously they crave the stability that traditional religious values supply. Everyone wants prosperity for himself. No one wants to share it. Invariably, this brings about a tension.
Many Indians are especially suspicious of diversity, in both culture and faith, and are uncomfortable with the secular ethos that accords tolerance and mutual respect to every faith community.
For social change always means a change in the power equations, and although Ambedkar, the social reformer and father of the Modern Buddhist Movement, foresaw this and willed it, sizeable groups in this country do not want this at all.
Ambedkar feared the tensions that “one man, one value” would bring. He knew it could only come about in what we call “civil society”, pluralist in function and ordered in law, and where freedom, respect and tolerance were part of the social fabric.
So far this is what we’ve enjoyed and cherished – indeed, taken for granted.
But which idea of India will prevail? Will it be democratic and secular, with space for all? Or will it be fascist and totalitarian, where dissenters are imprisoned or compelled to become refugees in their own land?
Our time to decide is now.
Jesuit Fr Myron Pereira is a media consultant based in Mumbai.
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