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Growing threats to the idea of India

As India marks 68 years as a constitutional republic, there’s a great deal to celebrate. The country can rightly look back on its eventful journey and all the large strides it has taken on all fronts with immense pride and satisfaction.

Few countries facing such overwhelming odds have grown at such a pace without surrendering its independence of spirit and equilibrium.

Given the humble beginnings of the journey in 1947 and the tough path of self-reliance that it chose under Jawaharlal Nehru – the country’s first prime minister – India has certainly come a long way. Indeed, what it has managed to accomplish is nothing short of extraordinary.

Today, India is not just one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a massive pool of talent and resources, it has registered its presence in every sphere – from economic progress to education to advances in science and technology.

More than the progress in material terms, if there is one most important feat that should make Indians truly proud, it’s their democracy.

Considering its size and the myriad challenges it faces, this boisterous and at times chaotic experiment in representative governance is nothing short of a miracle.

Of course, there have been formidable challenges too.    Yet ordinary Indians have never given up on their country or on a better tomorrow. Many of them cannot read or write and are at times disillusioned with their politicians. But they also believe in the power of their vote to deliver change.

Even during the most trying times in the nation’s history, like when Indira Gandhi imposed emergency on the country, ordinary Indians never gave up or gave in.        So if India has had such a spectacular and steady journey as a democracy, something that is rightly a source of envy for many of its neighbours, the credit goes to its people.

As India marks another historic milestone, it would do well to pause and ponder over the course ahead and all the formidable challenges that are staring it in the face – uncertainty shrouds its future as an inclusive democracy of myriad faiths, cultures and languages.      Dark clouds are gathering over the horizon.

This Republic Day is being celebrated at a time when India is undergoing a major churn. Of course change is a matter of course and essential for a healthy democracy.

However, a change that seeks to turn the world upside down, striking at every principle and ideal that once inspired and led the country and the republic can only lead to chaos, anarchy, and more importantly, the destruction and erosion of the idea of India.

After nearly three years of Narendra Modi, the India of Gandhi’s dreams already looks unnervingly unfamiliar.          With the cult of leader worship pervading all affairs and spheres of national life, India increasingly looks like North Korea and those socialist republics of the Middle East and the ‘stans’ of Central Asia.        Indeed, it took long years and decades for Stalin, Mao and other ‘strong, revolutionary’ leaders to develop the personality cult and dizzying heights of deification.

The recent replacing of Mahatma Gandhi’s iconic image of spinning cotton yarn on a charkha on Khadi Udyog’s calendar with that of the ‘Dear Leader’ may look improbably crude and egotistic but it is just the beginning.

To top it all, instead of being embarrassed about this hubris and delusions of grandeur, the BJP chooses to brazen it out pointing to the ‘surge’ in sale of khadi products under this government. Indeed, they have the temerity to suggest that Modi is the greatest leader to ever lead India, over and above the Mahatma and the first line of formidable leaders groomed by him.

Many BJP states already have chapters in school textbooks dedicated to the Dear Leader, explaining how he dedicated his life to serving the nation, sacrificing all that he had including his young wife and that mythical tea stall that his father owned.

What next? New currency notes with the PM’s image after the yeoman service rendered to the economy with the note ban? Even Nehru, who was Gandhi’s contemporary and is considered the architect of modern India thanks to his defining 16 years of leadership, wouldn’t dare dream of such insouciance.

The monthly address to the nation on radio (Mann ki Baat) and frequent foreign jaunts, rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty and endlessly pontificating to the mystified diaspora audiences are all part of the elaborate exercise to build and cultivate the legend of a messianic, larger-than-life figure.

Prof Shamsul Islam argues that this deliberate, careful spawning of the personality cult is part of the efforts to usher in the Hindu Rashtra.

The RSS and BJP and their various ideological avatars have indeed been working on several fronts towards this goal – like a well-oiled machine.      From rewriting history books to poisoning young, impressionable generations to infiltrating top government bodies and think tanks like NCERT and ICHR with hate-spewing saffron elements, we are getting there steadily and gradually, one step at a time.

Even the security forces, once known for their secular ethos, are not spared this saffronisation.      Not a day passes without some Hindutva luminary going after the religious minorities, especially Muslims.        Reflecting the new national mood, the dream merchants of new India are increasingly coming up with films and television serials that openly paint the 800-year long Muslim rule as tyranny and enslavement of the country.

This month, one TV channel unveiled with great fanfare yet another dangerously distorted version of history with its ‘Bajirao Peshwa’, openly abusing the Mughal rulers as ‘foreign aggressors’ and much more. Peshwa, a Maratha chieftain, recently played by Bollywood superstar Ranveer Singh on the big screen, is of course the son of the soil and the hero fighting ‘Muslim aggression.’

This is of course the narrow version of history that the RSS and the ruling BJP have always championed – something that the secular and democratic Indian state and the country’s progressive and inclusive constitution have always firmly rejected.

However, with the RSS and BJP now controlling all levers of power and setting the national agenda and discourse, their worldview is now increasingly gaining ascendancy and acceptance, replacing the original idea of India promoted by the leaders of the Independence movement, which incidentally the Hindutva leadership chose to ignore.

Is it any wonder then that Muslims and other minorities are finding themselves increasingly demonised and stigmatised in the new India of saffron dreams?   And where is it all going to end? With friends like these, who needs external enemies?

What is most disturbing about this whole business is the total apathy or inability of secular political parties to check this state of affairs. While the Congress is in a coma-like state, no effective attempt is being made by other parties to stop the onward march of fascism. The left’s sphere of influence is constantly shrinking. Satraps like Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee and others who have the potential to check the BJP are content in their turfs. Mulayam has committed virtual political hara-kiri with his recent antics.     Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party offers a ray of hope.  But it’s too young and is largely confined to Delhi and other metros.

As India crosses yet another signpost, there are genuine concerns about the direction of the republic.

The very constitution that Republic Day celebrates and that promises freedom and equal rights to all its citizens is under assault.       It would be a great tragedy if all that India has achieved over the past 70 years as a vibrant, multicultural democracy is squandered.

The writer is a Middle East based columnist.

Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "Growing threats to the idea of India," The News. 2017-01-27.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Political history , Security forces , Politicians , Leadership , Democracy , Jawaharlal Nehru , Indira Gandhi , India , BJP , RSS