Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Celebrating Republic Day: Rejecting Indian nationalism for Indian constitutionalism

For some time now I have tended to avoid the ‘celebration’ of national events. These days, like ‘Liberation’ day, Independence day, do not represent an unequivocal moment of joy and liberation. They mark the formal inauguration of a State based on upper-caste (Hindu, though this could well contain upper-caste members of other religions) majoritarianism. The national provides almost no scope for the liberation and the development of the multiple groups in India, who do not identify, or share the same interests as the upper caste groups in this country.

It was with some amount of irritation therefore, that I approached Republic Day this year. Two episodes however, beat home the point that Republic Day does not necessarily have to represent the national vision. It can, must, and does represent an entirely different route for participation in the Indian political community.

The first of these episodes that allowed for revelation were the rather disturbing reports surrounding the charge sheet filed by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) in the Malegaon bomb-blasts case. The reports indicated that Lt Col Prasad Purohit, the accused in the case, and the group he was associated with, had no faith in the Indian Constitution. They seek to create a new Constitution, one that lays the foundation for a Hindu nation in this country.

It was on reading this report that the emotional penny finally dropped regarding the value and the significance of the Indian Constitution. Intellectually, I had been exposed to arguments that suggested the significance of the Constitution. I intellectually knew that even though the Constitution had its limitations, clauses that we had minor and sometimes major disagreements with, it was the document that provided us with the sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic. Were it not for the clear and striking declarations of the Constitution, it is quite possible that the political architecture of this country would have been quite radically and troubling different. For sometime now, I have heard Dalit leaders go on and on about the value of the Constitution and the provision of rights it enabled. I could never understand what I then thought to be, their obsession. It was only with this report on the statements by Prasad Purohit therefore that the penny finally dropped, and I was able to appreciate the value of Indian constitution.

The Republic Day of India I realized offers us at least two ways of commemoration. The first is to throw ourselves into blind nationalistic celebration, and the other is to reiterate our commitment not to the nation, but to the values of the Constitution adopted on the 26th of January and the socio-political order that it has given us. I chose this Republic Day to honour the latter option.

This choice that we all have was made obvious to me by the second of the two episodes I referred to above. This second episode was a short article penned by Sandeep Heble that appeared on the front page of the Gomantak Times, on Republic Day. The web-version of this essay was titled Republic Day thoughts. Rather than contemplate the values of the Constitution though, in pushing a nationalist position, Heble wound up unwittingly (?) deriding the secular principle enshrined in the Constitution. Why do some Indians oppose the singing of Vande Mataram he questioned, arguing that there was nothing objectionable to the demand that Vande Mataram be compulsorily sung in schools. This is the stock explanation that is dished out when dealing with the opposition to Vande Mataram. The GT however, perhaps unintentionally hit the nail bang on the head, with its titling of the essay ‘Vande Mataram’ has strong cultural & nationalist roots. To supplement the title and the essay, they inserted an image of the ‘Mother’ in question. The Mother was represented through the image that the RSS uses for their representation of the Hindu Rashtra. Leaning on a lion, holding a saffron flag, dressed as a Hindu goddess. This then is the cultural and the national connotation of Vande Mataram and this is why, despite its beauty – the Des raag based hymn is a personal favorite, one I will sing privately (and constantly), but never politically – the song is opposed.

In the earlier part of his essay Heble displayed his undoubtedly secular convictions, when he castigated the recently held meet organized by the Akhil Mandir Surakhsha Samiti in Campal. Rather than pit the majority against the minority, the occasion could have been better served he argued by making ‘a strong statement against caste orthodoxy, superstitious practices and discriminations against dalits and women’. If he is a secular person, how then does he go on to take an un-secular, and (constitutionally) un-Indian position?

The clue to this diversion lies in a flaw in understanding what the secular project of the Indian constitution ought to be. Recent scholarship has reflected that much of the effort of the Parliament subsequent to Independence was exactly the kind of progressive agenda that Heble recommends; gender issues, caste discrimination etc. Unfortunately though, what was being unwittingly pursued was the secularization of Hinduism so that it could become the national (and secular) culture for the Indian nation. It is for this reason that Heble is at a loss to understand why Vande Mataram is resented, even though the lyrical references to Devi are removed. The hymn may have been secularised, but it is a secularized Hindu hymn. In that sense, it is just as problematic as Euro-American culture, that claims to be secular but remains biased towards Christianity.

How then are we to move out of this conundrum that we seem to find ourselves in? The route perhaps lies in Ambedkar’s vision as opposed to Gandhian reformism. Ambedkar recommended procedural equality, rather than the Gandhian penitence that focused on social reform. A focus on the procedural (without in the process fetishising procedure) would see the secular as respectful of the student who wishes to not sing the Vande Mataram. The renewed republican project of the Indian Constitution would value freedom enough to recognize that even a student has the right not to be coerced into a position she feels uncomfortable with. It would take socialism seriously to reduce the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in India. In Goa, this respect for socialism would transform into a respect for the people’s movements that recognize the environment to be the property and livelihood base of all, not a commodity to be parceled out for private profit of a few. It would understand sovereignty not as the petty posturing of national elites in the international sphere, but the right of the nation to take positions that benefit the sovereign decisions taken by the most marginal among us. Inspired by Amartya Sen, it would allow the most marginal to be sovereign! This project would look to realize democracy as the institution that applies the law equally to all, rather than skip it for those with deep pockets, the right connections, and the right background.

It is this republican tradition and Constitutional project (initiated on the 26th of January 1951) that we are better off celebrating and committing ourselves to, while rejecting the culturally biased nationalism that is currently suffocating the life out of our republic.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 28th Jan 2009)

1 comment:

Rodolfo de Sousa said...

Dear Jasonbab,
Hello from Germany.
How true what you say. Many a Goan today would run away from that "choking" ideology of Hinduvta peddled by some powerful politicians and intellectuals of the lower order and would readily embrace Indian constitutionalism hands down.
The term Hinduism itself smacks of aggression and arrogance when seen from the 500 year old Portuguese perspective in Goa and constitutionalism would seem to be an appropriate antidote even with all its shortcomings. Right now many a Goan would prefer and be pleased if he were called Indian rather than Christian or Hindu or Muslim. And I'm sure this would apply to all the other groups that make up this grand nation of ours.
Kind regards.
Rodolfo de Sousa