What could be some of the defining images of India at 70? The lockdown in Srinagar, which can neither silence nor contain the disillusion of a new generation of Kashmiris trapped in a festering crisis. The cow vigilantism in many parts of the country which says that it is alright to disrespect human life in the name of the cow, and which targets Muslims and Dalits. The Dalit protest gathering force in response, challenging the gau rakshaks, and driven by a new generation of Dalits empowered by technology, education, economic change. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s belated castigation of cow vigilantism followed by the VHP’s demand for a Gau Mantralaya, a cow helpline. AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi lamenting that Muslim localities still don’t have schools or roads, only police stations. Irom Sharmila calling off her 16-year-old fast that could not make the Indian state respond to her demand for withdrawal of a draconian law, her resolve to carry on her fight by joining the electoral fray. The chief justice of India berating a powerful government armed with an argument-stopper of a mandate for the logjam on judges’ appointments.
They are disparate images, but with a common theme: They speak of freedom’s work half done, or undone, while promising that the fight for greater freedom is still on. On the large questions those images speak to — how to define Indian nationalism, what should be the protections for and rights of minorities, or the correct balance of power between institutions — the good news for India at 70 is that a million contests are afoot. And that these contestations are taking place within the framework of a constitution that has stood the test of time precisely because it makes room for newer challenges and newer resolutions. In the end, it is not the ferocity of the argument that threatens the strength and longevity of the idea of India, but the possibility that it can be carried out on to the street.
As India turns 70, then, let’s celebrate that PM Modi had to, even though belatedly, rebuke the rampaging gau rakshak. The PM may have calculated the math of the Dalit vote for the BJP in UP, but it is just as possible another arithmetic forced his hand — which has to do with his office and the minuses of trying to govern a diverse democracy from any of its extremes. Let’s celebrate the growing visibility of gestures of Dalit resistance and attempts to reclaim dignity, as in the refusal to dispose of human waste and remove carcasses of dead animals anymore. Let’s welcome Candidate Irom Sharmila in Manipur, when she takes the electoral plunge and an election issue called AFSPA. Let’s look forward to the latest bout of judiciary vs government yielding a new round of adjustments and concessions and hopefully a finer balance between institutions. We will also be watching the BJP-led Centre’s next steps in Kashmir, now that the ritual of the all-party meeting is done and dusted.