In the article, ‘Discrimination, not justice’, (IE, December 19, 2019), Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writes about “arguably, the largest student protest since the Emergency”. In the context of the failure of our governing institutions, the role of students in seeking to restore our constitutional framework is striking. On the other hand, the political class does not seem to be worried, while pursuing policies that would undermine the very structure of our constitutional democracy.
As we seek to restore our torn social fabric, and promote both democracy and pluralism, some clues from the past may be useful. In the years before Independence, the failure of the leadership — of the Congress and the Muslim League — to arrive at an honourable compact had tragic consequences. The League saw the Congress as promoting Hindu hegemony; the Congress dismissed the League as a bunch of intransigent Muslims. The result was the Partition of India, which resulted in loss of lives and property to the tune of thousands of crores. It also created a bitter, enduring enmity between communities.
But, despite Partition, millions of Muslims stayed behind in India, taking at face value the promises of the Indian Constitution — that they would enjoy equal rights of citizenship. How can we redeem those promises now?
It is here that the past may help. While the political debate on Partition has focused on what the Congress and the League did (or did not do) in the years just before 1947, if we go slightly further back in time, we can discover voices of sanity that speak directly to our troubled present. These voices can serve the present generation to remind them of the wrongs engulfing them. Here, we would be reading history not to compete with the present, but to find meaningful solutions for the future.
In particular, I draw the reader’s attention to the deliberations at the First Round Table Conference, held in London in November 1930. The conference had 89 representatives: 16 British officials, 57 delegates from British India, and 16 from the Princely States. Although the Congress had boycotted the conference, it nonetheless saw the participation of liberal Hindus like Tej Bahdur Sapru, V S Srinavasa Sastri, M R Jaykar and C Y Chintamani, as well as prominent Muslim leaders, like Aga Khan, Sir Mohmmad Shafi, Mohammad Ali, A K Fazl-ul-Huq and M A Jinnah.
In The Constitutional Problem in India, Sir Reginald Coupland has given a vivid account of the discussions in the conference. Sapru’s remarks are especially worth quoting: “It has been an article of faith with me, that no constitution has any chance of success in India unless the minorities are fully satisfied, that they have got the position of honourable safety in the new commonwealth which we are seeking to establish”. But, “the heart of youth of India on the question”, Sapru went on, “is absolutely sound”, and sooner or later a sense of “territorial patriotism” must grow among them. It would grow, added Jaykar, if the communities were given a chance of serving India together. “Give them opportunities of feeling that side by side they are working for their one country… and a great deal of the difficulty will disappear”. (Coupland, pp 120-121).
These words are highly pertinent for India today. For, what do different enactments like the anti-conversion Act, anti-beef Acts, the criminalising of triple talaq, the abrogation of Article 370, and, the introduction of NRC and CAA, mean to Indian Muslims today? Will this satisfy Muslims or dismay them? Do they feel they are treated honourably and enjoy security in the country of their choice after Partition? Do they have reason to be proud of “territorial patriotism”? Do we allow them to grow as such? Do we give them opportunities to work for their one country?
The suspicions of the present day ruling class with regard to the integrity of Muslims are deeply worrying. These are Indians who did not cross over to Pakistan, during Partition, believing that they would be treated honourably, with secure futures. The government’s perceived hostility towards them, so as to relegate them to second-rate citizens or an appendage of Hindus, is unfathomable.
Here, it would be instructive to recall what Edmund Burke had said in the context of the British subjugation of American colonies. Burke had remarked: “A nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered”. How long shall we use force to conquer the “others”? That seems to be the question that the students at the vanguard of the current protests are raising. We should take heed, and act wisely.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 16, 2020 under the title ‘Govern, not conquer’. The writer is a retired public servant based in Pune.
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