Commenting on the increasing incidents of lynchings, President Pranab Mukherjee said on Saturday that when “mob frenzy becomes so high and irrational, uncontrollable”, people “have to pause and reflect” and be proactively “vigilant” to “save the basic tenets of our country.” Otherwise, he said, future generations will “demand an explanation from us.” His remarks came days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that killing people in the name of protecting the cow was “unacceptable” and went against the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi.
“We shall have to ponder over, pause and reflect when we read in the newspapers or see on television screens that an individual is being lynched because of some alleged violation of law or not. When mob frenzy becomes so high and irrational, uncontrollable, we have to pause and reflect. Are you vigilant enough… I am not talking of vigilantism. I am talking of are we vigilant enough, proactively to save the basic tenets of our country,” he said, adding that one cannot avoid one’s duty towards the issue. “Because we cannot avoid it, posterity will demand an explanation from us about what have you done,” said Mukherjee, addressing a function after releasing the commemorative publication of National Herald.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, vice-president Rahul Gandhi, NCP chief Sharad Pawar and the entire top leadership of the Congress were in attendance. The President also appealed to the media to remain constantly vigilant, saying democracy survives because of it. “I do believe that citizens’ vigilance, intellectual vigilance and media vigilance can act as the biggest deterrents to the forces of darkness and backwardness,” he said. Mukherjee recalled that Jawaharlal Nehru had inscribed the words “freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might” below the masthead of the National Herald.
“These words may have been written in 1939 but have its application and relevance for all time, whenever freedom is in danger and truly in peril. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and freedom and that vigilance can never be passive. It must be active, and active vigilance is the need of the hour,” he said. This is not the first time that the President has intervened in a raging debate. On March 2, he spoke on the need for space for dissent and debate in universities, and respect for women, days after Gurmehar Kaur, a Delhi college student, was threatened with rape after she called out the ABVP.
“There should be no room in India for the intolerant Indian. There must be space for legitimate criticism and dissent… Universities must engage in reasoned discussion and debate rather than propagate a culture of unrest,” the President had said. In December last year, in his inaugural address to the 77th session of the Indian History Congress in Thiruvananthapuram, the President said that “our traditions have always celebrated the argumentative Indian, not the intolerant Indian”.
Meanwhile, speaking at today’s event, Sonia targeted the BJP without naming it. “Those who stood aside when history was painfully made by sacrifice and struggle, those who…had little faith in the Constitution…are now seeking to create an India completely at odds with the one that saw the light of Independence on August 15, 1947,” she said. “Though their language is modern, they seek to take India backward, to further their narrow sectarian vision. Their modern jargon conceals pre-modern beliefs, concepts that are at odds with progressive and inclusive thought, with contemporary knowledge and with a vision for the future. It is our duty to pull away the hypocrisy and reveal the reality lurking beneath,” she said.
“Today, that tried and tested idea of India has been thrown fundamentally into question by rising intolerance, by malevolent forces that tell Indians what they cannot eat, who they cannot love, what they cannot say — indeed, what thoughts they cannot hold,” she said. “And all this is being encouraged by a culture of vigilante violence actively supported by those who are supposed to enforce the law. Such examples assault our consciousness almost daily. India has reached a crossroads, marked by increasing threats of authoritarianism and bigotry. Where we choose to stand today is where our country will head tomorrow,” said Sonia.
“If we accept without scrutiny, without question, without a challenge the fallacies and follies we are witness to today, we will leave for our children a land of injustice, a legacy of trauma, and a country divided and broken. We are in a war of ideas. We wage this war to preserve our ideals, which have built India up as a model of democracy, diversity and co-existence. When these ideals are threatened, India itself is in danger. And if we do not raise our voices, if we do not speak up, our silence will be taken as consent,” she said. She said that while the country has to fight against injustice, poverty, prejudice, patriarchy, malnutrition, illiteracy and communalism, “we must also prevail in this greater war for the soul of our nation”.
“Ours is a mission to preserve the credibility and sanctity of our institutions in their democratic design. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of truth, Jawaharlal Nehru’s celebration of pluralism, Sardar Patel’s vision of unity, Dr Ambedkar’s legacy of social justice — these are what we must fight for today,” she said.
Arguing that domestic misrule is as great a challenge, she said that “at a time when the inclusive conception of our nation is under attack, and the press is pressured to obey and applaud rather than to question, speaking truth to power is the imperative of our age.”