The Babri Masjid was demolished by a crazed mob in broad daylight in 1992. Article 370 was abrogated at night by a secretive government in 2019. That said, there are some striking similarities between these two events, occurring 27 years apart. Both were justified as righting historical wrongs; both were triumphantly acclaimed by the Sangh Parivar and their supporters; both were quietly mourned by those affirming the constitutional values on which this Republic was founded.
When the Babri Masjid was demolished, I was living in New Delhi, in the home of Dharma Kumar, Professor of Economic History at the Delhi School of Economics. Her many students and friends — some active in public life today — will remember Dharma both for her personal charm and for her intellectual courage. She was a classical liberal, equally opposed to the extremities of the Marxist left as well as of the Hindutva right.
Dharma had grown up in Mumbai in the last years of the Raj, where she had sometimes attended Mahatma Gandhi’s prayer meetings on Juhu beach. Now, seeing his ideals violated in a nation which claimed him as its founder, she set out to publicly defend them. She drafted a statement, which she had inserted as an advertisement on the front page of the most widely circulated newspaper in India. The statement read: “If you are a Hindu, read on. Do you believe that the demolition of the Babri Masjid restored Hindu pride, enhanced national honour, strengthened India? If so, consider the possibility that the act debased Hindu culture, shamed the nation across the world, increased the tensions between all communities and so weakened India”.
Designed by an artist friend of Dharma’s, the statement was printed on white type against a black background. Alongside appeared the names of 19 signatories. They included the scientist MS Swaminathan, the writer Vikram Seth, the former RBI Governor, IG Patel, the curator, Pupul Jayakar, the former Solicitor General, Ashok Desai, and the former Chief of Army Staff, K Sundarji. Although Dharma thought up and paid for the ad, and canvassed each signature, she did not — out of both propriety and modesty — put her own name on it.
Notably, the list of brave, civic-minded Indians who signed Dharma’s appeal began with six widely admired industrialists. These were Bharat Ram, RP Goenka, Lalit Thapar, Nanubhai B Amin, Raj Thiagarajan, and Desh Bandhu Gupta. That they signed this statement made it far more credible for the readers of the paper in which it appeared. It could not now be dismised as the malignant handiwork of misguided jholawalas.
When I heard of the abrogation of Article 370, my mind went back to December 1992. The silencing of the millions of people in whose name this constitutional change was allegedly being enacted seemed — since it was done by a government and not a mob — an even greater violation of the republic’s ideals. As I lay awake at night, I remembered Professor Dharma Kumar and what she had done. I was now in my sixties, as she had been in 1992. I had the same sort of position in our intellectual life as she had then. I, too, had a wide spectrum of influential friends in other professions.
My first thought was to emulate my teacher, to draft a statement appealing to my fellow citizens to abjure crude triumphalism, alerting them to the moral and political consequences of this awful act. This statement might have said: “If you are a patriotic Indian, read on. Do you believe that the abrogation of Article 370 overnight and without deliberation enhanced national honour and strengthened India? If so, consider the possibility that the act undermined the Constitution, degraded our democratic ethos, and increased rather than decreased tensions between Kashmir and the rest of India”.
Had I drafted this statement, I could have raised the money to pay for it to be printed in the leading newspaper of the day. Would I have had Dharma’s success in getting people of comparable stature to sign? The writers and artists would have been easy work. But which contemporary analogues of Lalit Thapar or RP Goenka would have joined in?
I personally know at least a dozen industrialists even more successful than the ones Dharma had contacted. I know them to be honest, of liberal values, and democratic to the core. While some may have had reservations about the existence of Article 370, none would have approved of the arbitrary, authoritarian manner in which it was removed. I could, I am sure, have drafted a statement which reflected their sentiments accurately and honestly. But, with perhaps only one exception, none would have put their names on it.
This is because — for all the other parallels I began this column with — in one critical respect, 2019 is not 1992. This is that the government now in power in New Delhi is far more vindictive and vengeful than the one that was in power when the Babri Masjid was demolished. When Bharat Ram and Lalit Thapar were approached by Dharma Kumar, they did not think that the fate of the tens of thousands of workers they employed would be put at risk by the mere act of their signing a statement. But were I to approach their counterparts today, even if they entirely approved of what I was trying to do, they would be too scared to sign on. They would have feared retribution, in the form of unannounced raids, cooked-up cases, arrests, and worse.
The comparison with the past is instructive, and with other democracies perhaps even more so. When President Trump imposed an arbitrary travel ban on citizens of six Muslim countries, the CEOs of his country’s top companies rose in unison to oppose it. They could express their views openly — because they knew that the president and his cabinet did not have the power to set the FBI or the IRS upon them. These American entrepreneurs also knew that, for merely speaking their mind, they would not be abused by ruling party politicians and demonised in social media as enemies of the nation.
In India today, industrialists — even the most upright and patriotic — are far more fearful than they were in 1992. Like the people of the Kashmir Valley, they have been silenced by the state into submission; by different (but no less malevolent) means. That even the richest and most successful Indians cannot say in public what they truly think tells us all that we need to know about the state of our democracy in the year 2019.
This article first appeared in the August 9, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Silence of the successful’. The writer is a Bengaluru-based historian