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'Tainted' land of Gandhi: Whither India's faith in civil libertarian political system?

Counterview Desk

Top hostorian Mridula Mukherjee, known for her work on the role of peasants in the Indian independence movement, has said that one of the characteristics of India’s freedom fighters has been their insistence on the need to listen to and respect the dissenting view. In a speech delivered on the occasion of the 73rd Indian Independence Day, she regretted this great legacy is now sought to be undermined.
Delivering her lecture at a webinar organized by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, ‘From the lens of a Historian: Revisiting the Vision of the Indian Nation in the Era of the COVID-19 Pandemic’, Mukherjee, professor of modern Indian history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, said, there is no need of any certificate to prove Indian citizenship, according to Gandhi’s definition.
Mukherjee quoted Gandhiji as saying: “Free India will be no Hindu Raj, it will be Indian Raj based not on any set community but on the representatives of whole people without distinction of religion. Religion is a personal matter and should have no place in politics.”

Excerpts:

The first element of the national vision of the freedom struggle focuses on the principle of anti-colonialism that says India would not accept foreign domination in any sphere of life. This was the foundation of national struggle and it is relevant even today. India has managed to have a fairly independent foreign policy for the better part of the last 73 years. However constraints, deviations and weaknesses have remained.
Secondly, the concept of ‘self-reliance’, what is being trumpeted today as ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, not new but dated back to the times of the Indian freedom struggle. The foundations of economic development were laid well and deep in the Nehruvian period when various academic and research institutions like IITs were set up.
Also, setting up the public sector which boosted economic development and then went into heavy industries. These were strengthened in the following years under the leadership of under Lal Bahadur Dhastri and Indira Gandhi. In 1991, economy was liberalized because the world economy changed and it was felt that our aim of self-reliant development had to be achieved differently
Thirdly, secularism is the foundation stone of the nationalist vision. Saying that India is a democratic country is not enough, as even authoritarian regimes have had democratic institutions to back them. In India, democracy is meaningless without the accompanying principles of republicanism, civil liberty (freedom of speech, expression, press and association), secularism and socialism (economic and social equality).
The vision of the Indian freedom struggle and its leaders was to create a secular, democratic, national India. There is no national India without democracy and secularism. Just before Quit India movement, Gandhiji was concerned about what would be the vision of India for the minorities. Draft Instructions for Civil Registers presented by Mahatma Gandhi on August 8, 1942 to the Congress Working Committee, when the entire leadership of the Congress was arrested, but never actually distributed to common people said:
“After the withdrawal of the British rule, the constitution of future government of the country will be settled by the joint deliberation of whole nation including all parties. The government will not belong to congress nor to any particular group of parties but to the 35 crores people of India. All congress men should make it clear that it will not be the rule of Hindus or any particular community.”
Even in his public speeches Gandhiji spoke of Hindu-Muslim unity. In a speech addressing the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) in Bombay on August 8, 1942, he said:
“Those Hindus who believe in the doctorine of the sword may like to keep Muslims under dominance, I do not belong to that section, I represent the Congress. Congress does not believe in the domination of any group or any community, it believes in the democracy which includes in its orbit every one of the community inhabiting this vast country. India is without doubt homeland of the muslims. Every Muslim should therefore cooperate in this fight to freedom.”
Gandhiji further added:
“The Congress does not belong to any one class or community; it belongs to the whole nation. It is open to Musalmans to take possession of the Congress. They can, if they like, swamp the Congress by their numbers, and can steer it along the course which appeals to them. The Congress is fighting not on behalf of the Hindus but on behalf of the whole nation, including the minorities.
“It would hurt me to hear of a single instance of a Musalman being killed by a Congressman. In the coming revolution, Congressmen will sacrifice their lives in order to protect the Musalmans against a Hindu’s attack and vice versa. It is a part of their creed, and is one of the essentials of non-violence.”

Few days before when the Quit India Movement broke out on August 9, 1942, in an article in weekly newspaper Harijan, Gandhiji referred to the complaint forwarded to him by the president of the Delhi Congress Provisional Committee which said RSS “consisting of 3,000 members goes through a daily lathi drill, which is followed by reciting the slogan, ‘Hindustan belongs to Hindus and to nobody else’. This recital is followed by a brief discourse in which speakers say: ‘Drive out the English first and then we shall subjugate the Muslims. If they do not listen, we shall kill them’.”
Gandhiji wrote, “Taking the evidence at its face value, the slogan is wrong and the central theme of the discourse is worse”, hoping that those in charge would inquire into the complaint and take the necessary steps. He gave his classic formulation on who is a citizen of India: “Hindustan belongs to all those who are born and bred here and who have no other country to look to. Therefore, it belongs to Parsis, Beni Israels, to Indian Christians, Muslims, and other non-Hindus as much as to Hindus.”
There is no need of any certificate to prove citizenship, according to Gandhi’s definition. Gandhiji said: “Free India will be no Hindu Raj, it will be Indian Raj based not on any set community but on the representatives of whole people without distinction of religion. Religion is a personal matter and should have no place in politics.” In those days when there was no TV and social media, Gandhiji’s message reached across to millions in a crystal clear manner. 
Unfortunately, while we are celebrating the 74th Independence Day, we are a nation that cannot bear criticism from harmless people
At least five issues in contemporary India go clearly against constitutional as well as Gandhian principles. 
First of all, the manner in which Kashmir situation was handled beginning with August 5, 2019, and its people and political representatives were not taken into account. It has serious implications because Kashmir is an important element in the conception of Indian Secularism.Till now, even basic services like the internet have not been restored.
Secondly, a very different direction approach from secularism was adopted in the implementation of the Citizenship Amendament Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Communal majoritarianism was brought into politics, instead of legal framework. The very definition of citizenship for CAA and NRC is different from the way it has been stated in the Indian Constitution.
Thirdly, according to the judgment of 1991, no religious disputes would be permitted over the places of worship. Recently, with the issue of building of Ram Mandir, majoritarianism has come out into full force. The problem is not with believing in religion. The problem is with the open association of the state with a religion blatantly.
Fourthly, the riots in North-East Delhi in February 2020 showing change in the nature of violence increasingly becoming the one-sided affair instead of clash between communities. They took the character of pogrom rather than riot. Even the forces of law and order colluded with certain communities to perpetrate violence.
During the pandemic, a particular religious gathering was communalized for political benefit. Even the poor hawkers were targeted and attacked because they belonged to one particular community. This is not the India Mahatma Gandhi visualised. The Gandhian dream of Hindus protecting their Muslim brethren in the country is being tarnished.
And finally, India had faith in a democratic, republican, civil libertarian political system. On the issue of civil liberties, Gandhiji said, “Liberty of speech means that it is unassailed even when the speech hurts. Liberty of the press can be said to be truly respected only when the press can comment in the severest terms upon and even misrepresent matters… Freedom of association is truly respected when assemblies of people can discuss even revolutionary projects.”

No one decides if the press is representing things properly or not. The moment this power goes to the executive and the judiciary, it becomes a curb on the freedom of press. Gandhiji upheld the principles of civil liberty saying: “Civil liberty, consistent with the observance of non-violence is the first step towards Swaraj. It is the breath of political and social life, it is the foundation of freedom. There is no room here for dilution or compromise, it is the water of life.”
It is very important to tolerate dissent and encourage it as it is an essential part of democracy. Even when there were differences between Subhash Chandra Bose and Gandhiji in 1939, Gandhiji stated that the views of both the sides -- supporters of Bose and those who were against him -- should present their views in public domain. 
Even during World War II, when India was forced to support Britain and its allies without its consent, the Congress invited Socialists, and even Bose, after his expulsion from leadership to deliver the fundamental message that all opinions have to be respected and there is no freedom without dissent. Dissent gave invaluable lessons. Freedom leads to dissent, and this was the way in which principles were articulated during the time of the freedom struggle.
The issue of civil liberites is highlighted in the Bhima Koregaon Case of 2018, wherein a large number of people who were declared ‘urban Naxals’ are languishing in jail. There are poets, lawyers, activists, academicians among them who were charged under framing conspiracies against people.
Unfortunately, while we are celebrating the 74th Independence Day, we are a nation that cannot bear criticism from harmless people. Such is the self-confidence of our nation, where students from universities such as JNU and Jamia Milia Islamia, were brutually handled. This is not the principle of civil libertythat our freedom struggle stood for. Activists like Harsh Mander, who have been fighting for a whole range of Gandhian causes, are now being charged guilty of inciting violence.
Anti-CAA movement was unique in post-independent India. It resembled almost every principle of the nationalist vision. For the first time the constitution was brought to streets. It was a ‘youth movement’ which engulfed the whole country. People from across religions participated. 
It was a fight for liberty and civil citizenship. But this movement was crushed taking advantage of the pandemic. One of the tragedies of the pandemic has been it has crushed one of the most unique mass movements in post-Independence. Time has come to talk the language of love. There is a need to look at ourselves and see where we are going wrong.
The vision of the economic and social development of India would be egalitarian. In this egalitarian vision, there were two components: Social equality and economic equality, or pro-poor orientation. There were debates for economic equality among the leftist leaders or socialist leaders that whether India after Independence should be a capitalist economy or a socialist economy. But no one whether, they were Gandhians, ambedkarities or Nehruvians differed from this principle, though their method for achieving social equality were different.
The egalitarian aspect of the nationalist vision has been violated in the context of the lockdown. More elitism has come into picture and India is surrendering to foreign capital. It is unforgivable in the manner in which pandemic was managed. The poor were starved, they had to walk in the heat before any government action was taken. The same people who were charged unnecessaruily in the riots came to help poor in the heat while the elite in Delhi were sitting in the offices in the Lutyens.
Instead of putting resources in the hands of people, the authorities are concerned about the fiscal deficit. The world is talking of giving extra $400-$600 allowance to unemployed, and here women’s Jan Dhan accounts are stacked with just Rs 500. It costs more than Rs 500 to even withdraw from banks for women living in villages. The one programme that is helping our poor today is MNREGA, yet we can’t increase wages.

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