15, Aug 2017 | Teesta Setalvad
It happened last week, again, when the simple, formal farewell to an outgoing constitutional authority in India, within the Indian Parliament, was so very bereft of grace and decency—and in fact, so full of viciousness. Hamid Ansari, the outgoing vice president, was simple, dignified and forthright, as he has been in the 10 years during which he held this office. (He is a two-term vice president.)
In his last words while he held this high office, speaking at the annual convocation of the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, Ansari was both studied and direct. He quoted Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, independent India’s first vice president, and made his mark:
“A democracy is distinguished by the protection it gives to minorities. A democracy is likely to degenerate into tyranny if it does not allow the opposition groups to criticize fairly, freely and frankly the policies of the government. But, at the same time, minorities also have their responsibilities. Well, they have every right to criticize, their right to criticize should not degenerate into wilful hampering and obstruction of the work of Parliament. All groups, therefore, have their right and have their responsibilities.”
The timing, the eve of the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, ruled as it is by a majoritarian proto-fascist party, could not have been more apt. India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen a serious deterioration in law and order and in the security of the minorities with repeated incidents of lynchings that reflect hate-ridden public discourse apart from the legitimization of violence.
Ansari then went further. On his last day as vice president, in his interview to the Rajya Sabha TV channel, he said, “Muslims were experiencing a feeling of unease.” “A sense of insecurity is creeping in,” he noted. In his speech in Bangalore too, he had spoken of the “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians.”
Not known to be the epitome of either dignity or tolerance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—for whom Hamid Ansari has been a bête noire ever since the former swept to power in May 2014—responded crudely, with a speech that has been roundly assailed for the depths to which it has taken public discourse in India.
In the upper house of Indian Parliament, four days after Modi’s bidding farewell Ansari, said, “it is possible that there was some restlessness within you as well, but from today you will not face that crisis.” He told Ansari, “you now have the joy of being liberated, and the opportunity to work, think and speak according to your core beliefs.” These remarks in the upper house of Parliament on August 10, four days after Ansari’s speech at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, had received wide media attention, have been correctly interpreted as narrow-minded pique on the part of India’s prime minister. Modi went further. remarking on the fact that Ansari came from a family prominent in public life for close to a century, with his grandparents having been part of a national party or in the Constituent Assembly (this august body drafted, painstakingly the Indian Constitution, sitting for a period of over 18 months). Modi especially remarked on Ansari’s association with the Indian National Congress and the Khilafat movement.
Modi went further, saying that Ansari’s life was that of a “career diplomat,” and that:
“only after I became Prime Minister that I understood who is a career diplomat. Because one cannot immediately understand the meaning of their laughter or their handshake. That is their training. But I am sure this expertise must have been used during the 10 years here, benefiting the House. … You were associated with West Asia for a major part of your career as a diplomat. You spent many years of your life in that circle, in that atmosphere, in that thought, its debate and amid such people. For a major part after your retirement, whether it was in Minority Commission or Aligarh University, you remained in that circle. But for 10 years, you got a different responsibility. Every moment, you had to remain confined to the Constitution and you tried your best to fulfill that responsibility.”
It was clear what Narendra Modi, a committed soldier of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh before he acquired political office, meant. Though he did not say the word ‘Muslim,’ that was what India’s prime minister told his people that day in the upper house of Parliament when he insinuated that Ansari’s entire worldview was stained by his long association with a constrained mahaul (environment) and dayara (circle).
For the RSS and BJP under Modi and his close associate, Amit Shah, freeing India from the hold of the Congress is close to an irrational obsession. Given the fact that what the earlier-known ‘grand old party’ today appears uncertain and decrepit, this helps them along even as the history of the Congress leadership in gaining independence from the colonial British can never really be ruled out. So, when Modi refers to Ansari as a career diplomat who spent his time largely in West Asia—and post-retirement with the Aligarh Muslim University and as chair of the National Minorities Commission, he willfully and selectively ignores (and seeks to obliterate from Indian Parliamentary record) that Ansari also served as India’s envoy to Australia and was India’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations. Worse still, he ignores Ansari’s deep commitment to the rights of minorities, whichever faith they come from. In 2006-2007, Ansari “was the chairman of a working group on ‘Confidence building measures across segments of society in the State,’ established by the Second round Table Conference of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on Jammu and Kashmir in 2006. The report of the working group was adopted by the Third round Table in April 2007. Among other things, the report advocates recognizing the right of Kashmiri Pandits to return to ‘places of their original residence.’ This right, it argued, should be recognized without any ambiguity and made a part of state policy.”
Digging deep and crude last Thursday, Modi also said, “But in the last 10 years, you were entrusted with an altogether different responsibility. Constitution, constitution, constitution! Its constraints dictated your approach all the time. But you worked to the best of your abilities. It is likely there was restlessness within you during this period. But after today, perhaps you will no longer face such a dilemma. You will enjoy freedom, be able to work, speak, and think according to what you really feel.” The clear message Modi gave is—and this is in line with how the RSS/BJP think—that the mere reference to, or speaking of, minority rights is anathema to their majoritarian worldview.
Modi faced sharp criticism from many sections of the media. “Heed the message: Departing VP points out Uncomfortable Reality” was the editorial in The Times of India that said:
“Departing Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s farewell speech was unexceptionable and balanced, and it’s hard to see why BJP is in such a tizzy about it. If statements such as ‘a democracy is distinguished by the protection it gives to minorities, but at the same time, the minorities also have their responsibilities’ are deemed ‘political’ in an unprecedented way, it’s worth remembering that is a direct quote from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s distinguished former president who can hardly be accused of being ignorant of constitutional responsibilities.
“Perhaps what has upset BJP is previous references by Ansari to rising insecurity among minorities, sparked by a trend of food bans, vigilantism and ‘beef’ lynchings which target them.
“But this sense of insecurity is indubitably the case, and it needs to be addressed rather than swept under the carpet. It is alarming, for example, that the Maharashtra government wants to revive a law that would allow police to raid people’s homes looking for proscribed meats, despite its having been struck down by the Bombay High Court. The law, incidentally, also overturned a basic axiom of Indian jurisprudence: that everyone is deemed innocent until proven guilty.”
Other newspapers in English were similarly critical. That Hamid Ansari’s term as vice president has given India and Indians scholarly earfuls on deepening of democracy, secularism and studied reflections on where we are going awry must have made Modi’s hostility to Ansari even more obvious, or logical.
While his departing lecture this August was titled Two obligatory Isms: Why Pluralism and Secularism Are Essential for Our Democracy,the one he gave this February (2017), when he delivered the inaugural address at a three-day conclave organised by The Hindu in Bengaluru titled The Huddle, specifically focused on Rising Inequality within India.He warned that unless the problem is tackled, conflict is bound to follow saying clearly that while living standards have improved for many in the last 30 years, this has perhaps masked a “‘dramatic concentration of income and wealth’ in a small segment: the richest 1 percent in the country owns nearly 60 percent of its wealth while the bottom half of Indians collectively own only 2 percent of national wealth.” Rising inequality can lead to conflict, both at the social and national level, he warned. “The growing threat of left-wing extremism, which has been repeatedly acknowledged as the gravest security threat to [the] Indian state, has its roots in economic deprivation and inequality in access to resources,” he had then added.
Go back a few months to December of last year. Speaking on India’s poor record on the issue of social justice, India’s scholarly and bold, former vice president had squarely stated, “The ground reality is dismal.” He was delivering the inaugural address at the 9th National Conference of the Indian Association of Lawyers when he further asked:
“Where do we stand on the ladder of equity? This is a question that citizens of the Republic can ask the state after 70 years of legislating welfare laws and adjudicating measures to deliver social justice.”
“Ansari also then said that according to a 2010 report by the National Human Rights Commission on the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes, a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes.
“‘Data culled from National Human Rights Commission indicates that in 2012, 37 percent [of] Dalits lived below the poverty line, 54 percent were undernourished, 83 percent [of] 1,000 children born in a Dalit household died before their first birthday and 45 percent remained illiterate,’ he said.
“The data also shows that Dalits are prevented from entering the police station in 28 percent of Indian villages, their children have been made to sit separately while eating in 39 percent [of] government schools, and Dalits do not get mail delivered to their homes in 24 percent of villages. India is placed 130th in the Human Development Index among 188 countries.”
Uncomfortable indeed for a regime that has mastered the art of rather brash—though some say skillful—propaganda. Two months before that, in October 2016, as he toured Hungary on an international seminar, his lecture, “Indian Democracy: Achievements and Challenges,” to students at Corvinus University, a campus that was at the forefront of the uprising in Hungary against hardline communism, was similarly pertinent and to the point. Emphasizing India’s commitment to secularism and pluralism, Vice President Hamid Ansari had said, “The superstructure of a democratic polity and a secular state structure, put in place in modern India, is anchored in the existential reality of a plural society…. Indian culture is syncretic in character… It is a veritable human laboratory where the cross-breeding of ideas, beliefs and cultural traditions has been in progress for a few thousand years. The national movement recognized this cultural plurality and sought to base a national identity on it.”
This author had written in May 2016 on the “Constitutional Cautions: Vice President and President Speak” repeatedly being made against the shameful deterioration in India’s rule of law and social climate after two years of the Modi regime. I had said,
“…the past 24 months of the Modi regime have been special, in that they have seen, possibly for the first time in independent India’s history, public and premonitory observations from the country’s two top constitutional posts, the president and the vice president (VP). Several times.
“Eminent jurist Fali Nariman, not so far back, on April 5 and 8 this year, publicly endorsed what VP Hamid Ansari had stated days before at his convocation address in Jammu (‘VP calls on Supreme Court to help clarify and strengthen secularism,’ Indian Express, April 3 ) and in fact three days later, went several steps further. Nariman endorsed Hamid Ansari’s views, stating that ‘A head of state (a vice head as well) must speak, extra-constitutionally, and more often, about basic constitutional values, especially since neither of these distinguished personages has any role to play in adjudicating upon them.’”
What had Ansari said in Jammu?
“Days before, on April 3, (2016) delivering his Convocation address at the university of Jammu, Vice President Hamid Ansari had urged the court to clarify contours within which secularism and composite culture should operate so as to remove ambiguities. Addressing the 16th convocation of Jammu University here, Ansari also wondered whether a more complete separation of religion and politics might not better serve Indian democracy. He said that a few years ago, in a volume published on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Supreme Court, lawyers Rajeev Dhavan and Fali S. Nariman had observed that ‘as we transit into the next millennium, the Supreme Court has a lot to reflect upon, and not least on how to protect the minorities and their ilk from the onslaught of majoritarianism…..’
“That was in April. Before that in February 2016, when Hamid Ansari delivered the address on Scientific Temper and the Media while address after launching of new look Rajya Sabha TV and inaugurating a panel discussion on ‘Scientific Temper: A Pre-Requisite for Knowledge-Based Society,’ on January 10, 2016, he had observed that the media, given its privileged position, has a responsibility to challenge the rampant obscurantism and superstition that afflict our society.
“On November 21, 2014, delivering the eight Tarkunde Memorial Lecture at New Delhi, Hamid Ansari had stressed on the responsibility of the state in the protection of human rights. In this lecture he had stressed, ‘Despite the constitutional and legal guarantees, religious minorities continue to be target of violence and discrimination from time to time. Patterns of systematic mobilization of hate and divisive politics are discernible; in many cases these have been pursued with impunity. The same holds for other weaker sections of society including SCs and STs, women, children and persons with disabilities.’”
The list is endless and the animus therefore for Modi and his brigade long-standing. A critical lecture delivered by the former vice president in central India in September 2015, specifically related to the “indispensability of dissent” within a democracy:
“‘Dissent as a right has been recognized by the Supreme Court of India as one aspect of the Right of Freedom of Speech guaranteed as a fundamental right by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Despite the unambiguously stated position in law, civil society concerns about constraints on the right of dissent in actual practice have been articulated powerfully.’ Referring to the new reporting requirements for NGOs… Nothing is more fatal for disagreements and dissent than the idea that all of it can be reduced to hidden sub-texts or external agendas.
“The idea that anyone who disagrees with my views must be the carrier of someone else’s subversive agenda is, in some ways, deeply anti-democratic. ‘It does away with the possibility of genuinely good faith disagreement. It denies equal respect to citizens because it absolves you of taking their ideas seriously. Once we have impugned the source, we don’t have to pay attention to the contents of the claim. This has serious consequences for dissent….’ Every citizen of the Republic has the right and the duty to judge. Herein lies the indispensability of dissent.
“It is these key and critical interventions by India’s former vice president that resulted in the rather undignified response of India’s prime minister, when he completed his term. That he spoke confidently and unerringly about India, as a lived and vibrant democracy, secularism and pluralism at ease with the rights (and affirmative action for India’s Muslims, Dalits and Christians) seriously made him isolated and open to crude attacks by India’s supremacist right wing. That several Indian institutions invited Ansari to speak and deliver memorial lectures reflects the vibrant battle, for Indian democracy, that is still very much on.
Brigands of RSS-affiliated outfits like the VHP and RSS asked him to ‘apologize’ for his words of caution, especially those uttered in April 2016. The same hate-filled voices were silent, however, when trolls had attacked the former vice president on Republic Day of 2015 (January 26) on the issue of (not) saluting the national flag. Ansari was faced with vitriol on the ‘social media,’ abuse that reflected an all-time low in Indian public discourse. ‘Anti-India,’ jehadi sympathizer, and ‘traitor’ were some of the abusive terms used. In fact, according to section VI of the Flag Code of India, “During the ceremony of hoisting or lowering the flag, or when the flag is passing in a parade or in a review, all persons present should face the flag and stand at attention. Those present in uniform should render the appropriate salute.” As I had written at the time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice President Ansari, then-U.S. President Barack Obama, and defense minister Manohar Parrikar were not in uniform and were therefore not required to salute the flag.
This was in January 2015, six months after Modi was sworn in. And Ansari, by observing protocol, has became the target of bitter and violent hate-letting. That Indian Muslims have forever borne the bitter abuse of being called ‘anti-national’ (traitors to the nation) is not new. That this legitimization now comes from the head of the executive is truly shameful.
It was not just Modi who targeted Ansari for his farewell remarks as vice president. The incumbent, Venkaiah Naidu, who now sits in this august chair occupied by a multicultural bunch of Indians, from different regions and faiths, brings a certain specific clout to the position. As the Indian Express reports, “A PTI report quoted Vice President-elect M Venkaiah Naidu rejecting as ‘political propaganda’ the view that there was a sense of insecurity among minorities. Without naming anyone, Naidu said: ‘Some people are saying minorities are insecure. It is a political propaganda. Compared to the entire world, minorities are more safe and secure in India and they get their due.’”
His allegiance (like Modi’s) is first and foremost to the RSS, as is that of the President Ram Nath Kovind. For the first time in India’s 70-year-old independent history, the top constitutional and executive posts are held by men who swear/swore by an organization committed to ending India’s constitutional and democratic ideal. The RSS is committed to bringing in a Hindu theocratic state. And herein lies the danger, imminent and crushing.
Happy Independence Day.
Feature Image: Shahbaz Khan, PTI