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)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two cases in Calcutta

A tale of two cases and two options…

This column is being written immediately on my return from Delhi, where I spent the time between the last column and this. My stay in Delhi was to enable my presence at the inaugural conference of the Law and Social Sciences Research Network held between the 8th and the 11th at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

While present at the conference, the participants were made aware of a rather interesting story. This true story involves the case of one Hans Dembowski, who subsequent to his research and the award of a PhD degree published a book, via the Oxford University Press titled Taking the State to Court – Public Interest Litigation and the Public Sphere in Metropolitan India. This book was concerned with the issue of governance in metropolitan India, and sought to elaborate the manner in which the Indian courts are playing a vital role in making public institutions more accountable.

Unfortunately for him however, two lawyers of Calcutta High Court, one of them being a government pleader, initiated a contempt petition before the Calcutta High court stating that the book contains "scurrilous derogatory and scandalous remarks against this Hon'ble Court" and has "scandalized and/or tended to lower the Authority of this court". Acting on this petition, the Calcutta High Court in an interim order ensured that the national and international circulation of the book was stopped. Dembowski hangs in limbo ever since.

Closer home, just prior to my departure from Goa, I was made aware of another petition that had been accepted and acted upon by the High Court of Calcutta. This one is a petition filed by Fomento Industries against Seby Rodrigues, where Fomento, represented by Sujay Gupta, former editor of Gomantak Times and now in the employ of Fomento claimed it was being defamed by Seby. Among the other prayers to the Court, Fomento made to the Calcutta High Court was a claim of Rs. 500 crores from Seby for the damages caused by the blog http://mandgoa.blogspot.com/ that he manages.

The admission of both these petitions by the Calcutta High Court is rather disturbing, since it really amounts to participation in a suffocation of the rights of debate and discussion. In the first case what the interim order represents is a suffocation of the right to academic debate. In the second, in terms framed by Pravin Sabnis, what we have is in fact an assault on the rights of a journalist, a person who documents social processes.

The question that emerges in both cases is, is there something desperately wrong with India’s judicial processes and institutions? Does one suffocate the circulation of an eminently academic work that raises questions and honestly seeks answers and promotes debate? Should the Calcutta High Court have taken up an issue that could, and perhaps should have, ideally been dealt with in Goa? Initiated a process without the participation of the defendant?

As a socio-legal scholar other questions also flood my mind. What is the relationship that a superior court of this country ought to have with procedure? Is it procedure alone that a Court like the High Court of Calcutta must bear in mind, or must its imagination also be animated by some knowledge of, and a respect for the workings of society?

Attending the public meeting in response to the defamation suit filed by Fomento, one got a sense of the workings of this society. A society that is in fact not working. A society that is simply not in communication within itself.

Did Fomento in fact initiate a dialogue with Seby prior to filing this suit in the High Court of Calcutta? Was this dialogue attested to by some form of written communication? Ideally, Fomento ought to have; in such a case displaying its commitment to an open society, and arming itself against the now widely prevalent accusations that it is seeking to harass an activist who is raising valid questions about the nature of mining in Goa.

For all the challenges that Goa has been dealing with, every challenge is an opportunity for dialogue. Unfortunately it seems that at almost every turn, this opportunity is being rejected in favour of the legal; a route that is really in confrontation with the social.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 14 Jan 2009)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Positive Politics and Karbala: Reflections in honour of Imam Hussein, Prince among Martyrs

When Mr. Iqbal Mohiuddin rose to address the gathering at the Seminar on Positive Politics, organized for the Popular Democratic Front in Margao on the second day of the New Year, he did not begin by greeting the audience on the commencement of the Georgian New Year. On the contrary, he presented to the largely Muslim audience, his greetings on the start of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar, and then subsequently went on to also greet them on the start of the Georgian calendar.

It was a pity that Mr. Mohiuddin did not continue his address with a reflection on the solemnity of Muharram. The solemnity begins on the first day of that month, and culminates on Ashura (ten in Arabic), the tenth day of that month. This period marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and many of his band of followers, on the burning plains of Karbala, a city now in modern day Iraq. Had he done so, he would have in one stroke, placed before us the challenge of and for positive politics that faces us in India today.

Imam Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and a claimant to the office of Caliph (the leader of the Muslim community). This position however was taken up by Yazid, seen in some traditions as a tyrant. Imam Hussein, seen as the righteous was halted at Karbala enroute to the city of Najaf, where his caravan, comprising women and children, was besieged, and under the burning sun deprived of water for days. On the tenth day, Imam Hussein was martyred in battle, and his body mutilated, but only after he was forced to witness the death of his sons and brother, at the hands of the forces of Yazid. It is in commemoration of this cruel killing of the virtuous grandson of the Prophet, that every year Muslims, and among them especially the Shia, gather to mourn in the months of Muharram and Safar.

The narrative that the story of Karbala builds up for us is that of the conflict between good and evil; between the path of righteousness, represented by Imam Hussein, and the path of corrupt and deviant State power, represented by Yazid. In standing up, and eventually dying for his convictions, Imam Hussein is configured as the Prince among martyrs laying the foundation for a culture, like that of Roman Catholicism, which holds a special place for martyrdom. This notion of martyrdom however transcends the usual idea of dying violently. Tradition also suggests that ‘one who dies in the love of the Prophet’s family, dies a martyr’. The path of imitation of their lives (of virtue) then also leads us to the hallowed stature of martyrdom.

It was thus appropriate that a Seminar on Positive Politics should have been organized within the first ten days of Muharram, and regrettable that despite this obvious alignment of dates, the connection was not made by any of the speakers.

The Seminar made a few important shifts that we should take note off. It was a move toward rearticulating the nature of nationalism in India. If nationalism, especially since after the Mandal Commission Report, has been articulated largely in upper caste (Hindu) or Brahmanical terms; speakers at the seminar indicated clearly that there another kind of nationalism was possible. This would be a nationalism that draws from the experiences and vocabulary of those excluded from the Brahmanical framework; Muslims, Dalits, other minorities. In terms of politics the seminar indicated that it was time to break out of vote-bank politics, where these communities are merely paid lip service, to move into a politics where rights are addressed and governance is the focus.

Nevertheless, various occurrences at the seminar indicated that it emerged from the same (problematic) soup of Indian politics. For example, assertions were made that prior to the arrival of the British, it was the Muslims who ruled, and there was none of the persecution that is today faced by a variety of groups across the country. My differences with this statement are not the obvious. That Muslims ruled prior to the British, and subsequent to the Hindus, is an invention of the British historians of India. The so-called period of ‘Muslim rule’ was a period marked by the rule of Turko-Afghans. Their religion happened to be Islam, but these Muslims were marked by sectarian and regional differences that marked them significantly. Also, they proved also the wisdom of Chanakya’s observations regarding real politic. In order to accommodate the demands of their realm, a number of these ‘Muslim’ rulers were Muslim in name alone, and consequently gave the rigid and doctrinaire Muslims of the time more than a few lines of worry. Secondly, these ‘Muslims’ ruled with the active support of brahmanised local elite. As such, power structures, as viewed from the dalit groups below, remained pretty much the same. That is to say, caste violence, endemic to the subcontinent continued to be a marked feature of ‘lower’ caste Indian lives. If we are to build a genuinely cooperative (and positive) politics, then it is imperative that we look beyond the ‘religious’ framework bequeathed by the British when we both, seek understand our past, and also move forward.

Finally, while I can understand the need to retrieve Islam and Muslims from the character-assassination it has been subjected to, we also need to realize that making such blanket statements as ‘there was no persecution under Muslim rule’ lulls us into a sense that merely being Muslim is enough to be good. Clearly this cannot be true. Mere confession of a faith is not enough, one has to also walk the path of the Prophet and the Imams, not merely literally, but mystically as well.

The more problematic aspect of the seminar was the fact of its structure. It was essentially a platform to launch a new political organization in Goa. Nothing wrong in that. However if we are to move toward new politics, then we need to also move away from the kind of organizing that is disrespectful of the audience. One cannot promise a seminar (necessarily dialogical), lump the audience in a room and then subject them to speech after speech, with no room for participatory discussion and dialogue. A movement toward positive and genuinely democratic politics will have be one that articulates a more respectful and dialogical consideration for the audience. Indeed the battle of Karbala was also marked by parleys, which resulted in some switching sides, more significantly some moving over from the side of Yazid to that of Imam Hussein.

Via the ‘Seminar’, the Popular Democratic Front has made its first appearance in Goa. If the reports about this mobilization from the states of the South are anything to go by, if the tenor of the speeches were anything to rely on, it would be interesting to see how they manage to gather groups in Goa toward more emancipatory agendas than the ones we are used to seeing in the quickly deteriorating situation of the secular and democratic Indian republic.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 7th Jan 2009)