The nation is in a crisis. The polarisation brought about by a series of legislation, judgments and executive action is dividing the nation. India, for the first time since 1947, is facing a direct confrontation between hardliners and liberals, between political ideologies, and sadly, between the majority and minority communities among its great people. All this was avoidable and can still be repaired. But that will take a herculean effort from those occupying high legislative, executive and judicial offices. These people will have to rise above political and short-sighted considerations.
One shudders at the thought of the final outcome if the slide is not contained. A large section of the society, especially those belonging to the minority community and among them the Muslims, are feeling marginalised. They are justified. Unfortunately, we have not heeded the warnings given by some of the greatest leaders on the eve of Independence and before we became a republic. B R Ambedkar warned us on November 4, 1948, with the prophetic but disturbing words: “To diehards who have developed a kind of fanaticism against minority protection I would like to say two things. One is that minorities are an explosive force which, if it erupts, can blow up the whole fabric of the State. The history of Europe bears ample and appalling testimony to this fact. The other is that the minorities in India have agreed to place their existence in the hands of the majority… They have loyally accepted the rule of the majority, which is basically a communal majority and not a political majority. It is for the majority to realise its duty not to discriminate against minorities. Whether the minorities will continue or will vanish must depend upon this habit of the majority. The moment the majority loses the habit of discriminating against the minority, the minorities can have no ground to exist. They will vanish.”
Opinion | Why I protest as a Muslim
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while laying the foundation stone of the Ambedkar Memorial on March 21, 2016, offered glowing tributes to Ambedkar and compared him to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. He said: “should see him as ‘Vishwa Manav’ not limit him to our borders. The way the world sees Martin Luther King, Babasaheb should be seen like that. Babasaheb was the guardian of human values. In the pages of history I see two people as really special — Sardar Patel and Babasaheb Ambedkar…The time has come when we must once again strengthen the unity of our society. And we can learn about this from Babasaheb.”
One only hopes that the prime minister will pay heed to Ambedkar. Patel, whom the PM claims to revere, while discussing the report of Advisory Committee on Minorities etc. on May 25, 1949 said: “It is for us who happen to be in a majority to think about what the minorities feel, and how we in their position would feel if we are treated in the manner they are treated.” A number of legislation and executive decisions, including on triple talaq, Article 370 and the relegation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, and the Citizenship Amendment Act have created a feeling of insecurity amongst the 150-million strong Muslim community of the country.
The freedom of speech and expression and the right to peacefully demonstrate are Fundamental Rights, but the right to protest to ensure constitutional morality transcends all these rights. It becomes the duty of every citizen to protect the Constitution and its values. Protests in this regard cannot be wished away, ridiculed or suppressed by unconstitutional methods, including by the brute use of the police. Such methods will be counter productive and will necessarily create a piquant situation, which must be avoided. Violence must be abjured, of course. But violence to stop legitimate protests also deserves equal condemnation. Thousands of people have died in the Islamic world in suicide bombings, including in Pakistan. The minority community in India has stuck to the constitutional goals and methods to articulate their point of view.
In his statement in court at the Rivonia trial (April 1964), Mandela justified the creation of the movement of Umkhonto. He said: “I, and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence. But the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism.”
He then quoted from the Manifesto of Umkhonto (1961): Time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices — submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.”
I do not subscribe to these words. But history should not be forgotten, it has uncanny ways of repeating.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 9, 2020 under the title ‘Empathy for the Other’. The writer is president, the Supreme Court of Bar Association of India. Views expressed are personal.
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