Are we in the middle of India’s second freedom struggle, without realising it, much as Dr Johnson’s friend spoke prose without realising it? These nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) force millions, who have been indifferent to politics, disdain for politicians apart, to squarely confront unresolved question relating to identity, citizenship, individual and group rights, including gender rights, and their role in creating substantive democracy.
At the first instance, the protests are against the government and its BJP-Sangh Parivar leadership. However, at a deeper level, these protests challenge Indian society’s collective prejudices that divide people in terms of religion, caste, language and region, and deny women equal rights.
Democracy Calls for…
We love to hail our freedom from the British. And imagine that the departure of the British also meant our transition to democracy. True, we gave ourselves a Constitution that offers everyone equality, liberty, rights of conscience, speech, profession and mobility, besides an opportunity to elect our leaders every five years, every adult possessing the right to vote.
Europe convulsed itself in multiple revolutions to secure universal adult franchise, and women had to wait till the 20th century to figure in that voting universe. Americans had their revolution, preceded by a tea party, to secure for themselves the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
With reference to the highly unequal distribution of power in society as it existed in India at the time of Independence, the Constitution was, and remains, a radical, revolutionary programme of reform and progress.
Any political party that focuses on transforming Indian society to align it with the values and norms upheld by the Constitution would be a revolutionary force.
The Constitution prescribes gender equality. If gender equality is realised and women have the freedom to choose their partners, many would marry outside their caste and corrode the caste system. The Constitution urges equality and non-discrimination, both inimical to the institution of caste and to discrimination on the basis of religion. It promotes a scientific temper, even as it protects the freedom to practice and propagate one’s religion of choice. In other words, the Constitution seeks to overhaul traditional India’s value system and overturn the caste system’s iniquitous hierarchy of social, cultural and economic power.
Nehru was alive to the need to move society, far removed from the democratic ideal, towards the Constitutional goal. The vision of social reform dissipated from the political class, over time, as leaders pursued votes, offered patronage to and sought patronage from the status quo, so much so that Narasimha Rao, Rajiv Gandhi’s home minister, famously declared, in the wake of the Shah Bano controversy, that if Muslims wanted to rot in the gutter, denying their women the democratic rights the Constitution proffers and the court had enforced, he was no one to dig them out.
…Addressing Social Schism
During the freedom struggle, nationalism was the rallying cry. This allowed leaders to paper over society’s divisions in the struggle to throw the British out. Gandhi’s support for Khilafat, opposition to British defenestration of the Ottomans, brought Muslims to the freedom movement, all right, but fed pan-Islamism. For much of his life, Gandhi defended the Varna system, even as he fought untouchability. This led to his lasting differences with Ambedkar.
When Kashibai Kanitkar, one of the earliest women writers in Marathi, wrote and published her first article, Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s newspaper Kesri offered the material her patriarchal critics needed to haul her over the coals for daring to learn to read and write, and, thereby, commit “treason against men”.
The Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League and the Communists — in the freedom movement, they were not the marginal presence they are today — offered competing and different visions for Indian society after Independence. But the vision of the Congress mainstream, led by Gandhi, prevailed, despite or, perhaps, because of, its prevarications on how to resolve society’s internal divisions.
But now, the Sangh Parivar’s effort to redefine Indian nationhood as Hindutva has created a popular upsurge.
Yes, there are the recognisable political leaders amongst the protesters, intellectuals, artistes, actors and social activists. But the most emphatic presence is of young people unattached to anything or anyone, apart from an idea of India as a secular, democratic place where people of all faiths have an equal right to a place under the sun, that equality recognising no boundaries of faith, caste, language or gender.
These youngsters, in effect, ask who we are, amidst the shimmering, diffracting, melding hues and shades that constitute ‘us’, and about the meaning of construing a ‘them’ amongst us, even as an ill-remembered past, of division of the popular imagination that culminated in the Partition, struggles to mouth a warning against repeating that tragedy. Their passionate protest in defence of unity negotiates social difference to enrich democracy.
Source: Economic Times