If we take stock of the performance of the Indian government in the last five years, it fails on many counts. Reckless measures such as demonetisation have seriously impacted the economy. Our credibility in international politics has received a severe drubbing. But the singular characteristic of the Narendra Modi regime has been its direct assault on the very identity of the Indian republic.
Profoundly shaped by the movement for Independence, the modern Indian identity transcended the European definition of a nation in monolithic terms of race, religion, culture and language. India was simply the sum of its peoples. One is reminded of the evocative definition of desam or a nation by the Andhra social reformer and pioneering writer, Gurajada Apparao. Gurajada’s declamation in a 1910 poem is common currency in Telugu: “Desamante matti kadoyi/ desamante manushuloyi.” Translated, it prosaically reads as “A nation is not its land/A nation is its people”.
Partition severely tested and wounded this formulation of our nationhood. But over the decades, India has largely avoided the narrowness of monolithic nationalism that has plagued many post-colonial societies. During the struggle for freedom, Hindutva held itself aloof from this worldview. It has bided its time and now seeks to radically reshape what it means to be an Indian. In the past few years, brazen attacks have been unleashed on Dalits, Muslims and other minorities. A climate of fear and terror has been created by measures centred around the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the wanton lynching of Muslims across the country. But let there be no doubt that it is the inexorable logic of any toxic ideology to encompass more people into an ever-expanding circle of hate.
In the face of a bruising attack on India’s secular constitutional identity, the opposition parties have been found to be utterly wanting. Most of them have shown little interest in challenging the construction of an aggressive political Hinduism that defines itself by demonising everyone else. With national elections underway, many people have reposed their hopes in a defeat of the present regime. This seems to be wishful thinking at best. One of the durable transformations effected in the last few years is the normalisation of falsehood and bigotry and the steady undermining of a number of institutions. The legacy of such shifts in the public realm is not going to disappear with a change in the political regime.
Under such bleak circumstances, civil society initiatives like the exemplary Karwan-e-Mohabbat have taken upon themselves the onerous task of addressing the darkest crimes of our times. They have reached out to the families of the victims of mob lynchings and offered the salve of empathy and solidarity. Important as these initiatives are, we need a much larger approach to confront what amounts to an existential challenge to the Indian republic. To this end, history might offer some useful lessons.
Throughout the late colonial period, Indian life was punctuated by riots. Like today, during that period there were individuals who recognised the value of social harmony and were willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of Hindu-Muslim amity. For instance, the indefatigable editor of the Kanpur newspaper, Pratap, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, was murdered in 1931 while trying to intervene during deadly riots. The most famous of such individuals is Mahatma Gandhi.
Throughout his life, Gandhi demonstrated a most capacious understanding of humanity which accorded respect and dignity to all. The last years of his life were spent in a lonely and heroic fight against the furies of communal violence as the dream of a non-violent and compassionate India dissolved in front of his eyes. Gandhi was, to a large extent, able to stanch the blood-letting with his quiet and determined action in challenging both Muslim and Hindu communalism in Noakhali and Calcutta. He then moved to Delhi and played a fundamental role in restoring a sense of belonging to a number of Muslim communities which were under siege in the aftermath of the killings in the newly-formed Pakistan. Eventually, he fell victim to the same ideology of hate that rules the country today.
As the civic activist Harsh Mander has pointed out, Gandhi had an endless capacity for radical love. But aside from acting out his personal beliefs, Gandhi recognised the need for both moral exemplars and grass roots organisation to propagate the values he desired to institutionalise in society.
In 1938, Allahabad witnessed serious riots between Hindus and Muslims. Although the city was the headquarters of the Indian National Congress, the riots could only be contained with the deployment of police and military troops. Alarmed at the prospect of such recurring violence, Gandhi proposed the constitution of a Shanti Dal, a non-violent peace brigade. Ever ambitious, Gandhi conceived of lakhs of peace activists who would work continually to propagate the philosophy of non-violence but also respond fearlessly and intercede in a peaceful manner to transform the atmosphere of violence during moments of crises. The scope of the Shanti Sena was in all contexts of potential violence and was not limited to communal issues alone.
Owing to the exigencies of the time, Gandhi could not work out his proposal. Subsequently, the idea of a Shanti Sena was taken up by Gandhian constructive workers. It achieved a measure of success in intervening in situations of communal riots as well as addressing political problems in places such as Nagaland and Cyprus. Eventually, owing to differences between Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, the Shanti Sena exercise came to an end.
Irrespective of the electoral outcomes on May 23, India stands at a crossroads. The foundational values of India as a modern republic that accords equal respect, dignity and opportunity to every citizen are under extreme duress. Mounting an effective challenge to communalism is a task that needs both immediate attention and a long-term strategy. India needs a Shanti Sena for our times.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 10, 2019, under the title ‘Soldiers for peace’. The writer is a biographer of the economic philosopher and constructive worker, J C Kumarappa and is currently working on a thematic history of Gandhi’s life and work in the 1930s. He is an associate professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru