There were many things that impressed and moved me when I spent a morning in Shaheen Bagh last week. I was impressed by how clearly the women leading the protest have understood why the changes in the citizenship law mean more for them personally than Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers say they do. I was moved by their dedication, courage and resolve to continue with their protest through a month of freezing cold days and nights. But, what moved me most was a poster on the front of a podium that said ‘savers of the Constitution’. It moved me most because in the seventieth year of its birth, the Indian Constitution is being seen as it was meant to be seen: a guarantee of democracy.
The men who wrote it translated a dream into a document. To borrow Madhav Khosla’s words from his remarkable new book, India’s Founding Moment, “At the heart of this moment — in which constitution-making and democratization occurred simultaneously — lay the question of democracy in an environment unqualified for its existence. Democracy was being instituted in a difficult setting: poor and illiterate; divided by caste, religion, and language; and burdened by centuries of tradition”.
Unsurprisingly, for most of India’s early years as a modern nation, there was constant speculation about when democracy was going to die. Of the handful of Indians who could read and write in those dark times, too many actually wished that it would die sooner than later. As someone who spent most of those years in military towns, I remember hearing often that what India needed was a decade of military dictatorship so that we could prosper as Pakistan had by then. Hard though it is to believe today, Pakistan in its early years of military rule was actually doing much better economically than ‘socialist’ India. And yet, democracy survived even through Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
So, it is quite wonderful that today, on the seventieth birthday of our Constitution, those who are protesting against the discriminatory changes in our citizenship law are using it as the symbol of their protests. Last week lawyers in Mumbai gathered outside a court to read the Preamble aloud in public. The government of Maharashtra has made it compulsory to teach the Preamble in schools. And, the most promising young Dalit leader of our time, Chandrashekhar Azad, came to Shaheen Bagh holding the Constitution in his hands. The dream that the men who wrote it dreamed has become a reality, and that is something to be celebrated.
Since Narendra Modi began his second term, the world has started to see India as a country in which aggressive nationalism and religious intolerance have become a serious threat to democracy. So much so that in Davos last week, Imran Khan got away with telling an important international news channel that India was in the grip of an ideology called ‘Hindu-vata’ that was inspired by the Nazis. From a man who comes from a country that has been the epicentre of jihadist terrorism for at least three decades, that is rich.
He got away with saying this because there appears to have been a consensus at this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum that India is in worse shape than ever before, both economically and politically. Someone as eminent as George Soros had this to say, “The biggest and most frightening setback occurred in India where Modi is creating a Hindu nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of their citizenship.”
If this was not bad news enough for one week, The Economist’s latest issue arrived on the day of my deadline for this column with a cover story titled ‘Intolerant India’. The cover has the BJP’s saffron lotus rising out of menacing rolls of barbed wire. The longish story inside caused me to sink into a miasma of gloom. In long years of political journalism, almost the only other time that I have read so much bad news about India was during the Emergency. And, that was not so bad as now when bad news travels in seconds because of the speed of social media.
To cheer myself up, I opened my notebook and read the notes of my conversations with the women of Shaheen Bagh. I found that they had talked more about the Constitution and the rights it guarantees them than anything else. It was because of the Constitution that they believed nothing bad would happen to them despite BJP spokespersons describing them as paid protesters and Shaheen Bagh as a ‘mini-Pakistan’. There is far too much talk of this kind. It actually ends up demeaning India more than Pakistan, but what should cheer all of us up this Republic Day is that our Constitution is a shining beacon in this troubled time.
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