The making of a Republican society

Was the independence movement a drama that Mahatma Gandhi enacted? In the middle of a slugfest of an election in the national capital, all sorts of things have been said. But some are extreme, even by those low standards. Why would the father of the nation, overwhelmingly regarded and loved as the mass leader of the independence movement and hailed worldwide, be spoken of with such disrespect?

The protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act provide a backdrop to the answer. The protests are partly about the specifics of one law, which seems to link citizenship to one’s religion, but they are also more broadly an expression of anxiety and anger at the relentless marginalisation of more and more people — not only on the basis of religion, but also on the basis of language, gender, caste, and more.

The Constitution, which guarantees the equality of all persons, is naturally in the crossfire of this struggle. And Mahatma Gandhi, whose name is synonymous with the independence that made the Constitution possible, is also squarely within it.

The freedom we gained in 1947 marked the end of colonialism, but that was not the only thing that ended then. Along with the British, newly independent India also tossed out a way of life that had privileged some at the expense of the many. Hinduism and its tenets above other faiths, upper castes above others and Adivasis, men above women, and so on. The Republic and its Constitution threw these things out.

That shift, however, occurred too swiftly for it to be embraced right away by society. Ambedkar clearly understood that the Constitution was not yet about what Indians already wanted for themselves, it was about the things that any free people should want for each other. It would take time to get there, but the Constitution would be a bugle of that march.

India has lived up to this hope, by and large. And the Constitution has played its part at different times in winning battles, bringing more and more detail to its original promise.

But not everyone has welcomed this. Some Indians have never accepted that the nation is equally for all its people. They’ve seen the Constitution as a flawed document that speaks of an India that is unreal and disconnected from its past. For them, changing the laws to reflect the ‘true’ nature of the society is necessary to become a great nation again.

But Gandhiji stands in the way. In the eyes of most Indians today, he was a moral force more than a political one. His memory partly guards the Republic, holding the revisionists at bay.

The attacks will continue. There may be a pause after each outrage, but there is an underlying current. The over-riding aim of nationalist politics today is to erase and reverse the idea of India made possible by the Republic, and its theme is ‘show people their place.’ Minorities one day, Dalits another day, people from one state a third, etc.

A very large number of people are made ‘second class’ citizens by this; some are even sought to be excluded from citizenship itself. What is standing in its way is not secular tradition, which is still somewhat weak. And it is not the religious minorities themselves, who aren’t numerous enough in many places.

But two other groups that are even larger sense that their rights and hard-won freedoms, too, are at risk. Linguistic minorities, and women. That’s why the bulk of the resistance today is coming from them.

Women, in particular, understand this quite well — they see the same leaders who abhor the minorities say things about them, too. Every once in a while, there will be someone who expresses an opinion on how women and girls should dress, if they expect to be safe in society. The particulars of each instance may be different, but the theme is the same — you people are not the true India, you need to remember that and know your place.

Fortunately, hordes of women are resisting it. They can see what’s at stake. If they allow this to happen, the road to equality they are promised in the Constitution will be closed for generations more.

Sadly, some people have made common cause with all this. Their reason for doing so is not always religion or hate. It is often patriarchy, caste, sect and other things that are part of an old social order that privileged people like themselves, locally and in their neighbourhoods and families. For this, they have set aside their idea of fairness and justice, and the idea of a modern Constitutional Republic. It’s like setting God aside and following a godman.

But this too shall pass. The beauty of a Constitutional Republic is that it builds upon itself, cementing its ideals in the hearts and minds of people over time, even if they do not believe all of it at the beginning. We must continue to put our faith in this.