Updated: March 25, 2022 8:38:48 am
In 1946, I was nine years old, growing up in the then small town of Patna. I was hardly aware of the momentous goings-on around me but I clearly remember the cries of “Bajrang bali ki jai” and “Allah hu Akbar”, especially as darkness fell on the city. I knew from the precautions taken by the elders in the family that something sinister was afoot. Luckily, we were not attacked by the rioters and remained safe in our mohalla. I remember that on August 15, 1947, sweets were distributed in the neighbourhood school where I was a student. I partook of the sweets and was told that our country was independent now, though I was not aware that it had also been partitioned into India and Pakistan. The riots, Independence and Partition did not leave much of an impression on my mind as a child. What stayed with me was a story told to us by one of my elder brothers.
He had gone to attend a University Training Corps (later replaced by the National Cadet Corps) camp and was returning to Patna by train. Given the prevailing law and order situation, the cadets were required to stand guard in full military gear outside the compartment. When the train reached Masaurhi, a small station near Patna, it was my brother’s turn to stand guard. He told us that the platform was so full of dead bodies that he could barely find space to stand. These were the bodies of the victims of communal riots. I have never forgotten that conversation. But despite my background and experience, I have remained a liberal throughout.
Communal riots took place all over the country. Mahatma Gandhi’s call for peace had no immediate takers until he went on a fast unto death in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Around the same time, the wise people who were elected to the Constituent Assembly of India by the provincial assemblies sat down in the central hall of today’s Parliament building to draft the Constitution. On August 29, 1947, the Assembly set up a seven-member drafting committee headed by B R Ambedkar. B N Rau, an ICS officer, was appointed the constitutional advisor. The painstaking work of preparing the Constitution began in earnest. The Assembly finally adopted the Constitution on November 26, 1949.
All those who were involved in the drafting of the Constitution had been witness to the catastrophic events that had just happened in India — the communal riots, Partition, the massive transfer of population from one country to another, the bitterness and hatred between the two major communities, the fact that Pakistan decided to become an Islamic republic and the temptation to do something similar in India. Yet, they settled for a liberal, democratic and secular Constitution, though the word “secular” itself was inscribed only later during the Emergency.
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Who persuaded India to adopt a democratic, liberal and secular Constitution and, despite the fraught times through which the country had passed, not make the country a Hindu Rashtra? It was the leadership of the time — Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad and Ambedkar. It was India at its best; an India which, throughout the centuries, had been a liberal, tolerant, inclusive and largely non-violent society. The leaders were only responding to this innate character. The people celebrated the adoption of the Constitution with jubilation.
What has changed today? Is our independence threatened? Is our unity in danger? Has the Constitution failed to serve us well? Has the Hindu become unsafe? Have unprecedented communal riots broken the back of communal harmony for good? What has changed is the nature of the leadership. The destiny of the country is in the hands of people who are out to change the centuries-old character of Indian society. They want the Hindu community to feel threatened, and if current events do not lend support to creating this atmosphere of fear, then they will dig deep into history to do so. And for what? To win elections. Religion is the opium being used by power-hungry politicians on an unsuspecting people. They have no use for Hinduism except as means to grab power. Hinduism does not teach hatred and violence. Anyone who spreads hatred and violence is not a true Hindu. The country today hungers for statesmen like Nehru, Patel and Vajpayee.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? I do not know. I am now 85 years old — mentally alert but physically not fit enough to wage a struggle. But India is in peril today and I hope some selfless person or a group will take up this fight before we are consumed completely by darkness. The important thing is to recognise that this is a clash of ideologies, not merely a question of changing a government. People who were in the shadows in 1947 are today out in the open. Misuse of social media and complete control over the print and visual media and the falsehood they dish out day in and day out is having its impact on the minds of the people. I see it happening in my own extended family.
Of course, this clash is not confined to India alone. The war in Ukraine is a struggle between a democracy and a dictatorship. In India, the talk of parties in opposition to the BJP uniting to challenge and change the government takes a shortsighted view. The struggle is greater and more difficult than it was during the Emergency.
Indians’ commitment to democracy is proven. We only need the leadership to take the right message to the people. Those who seek power cannot do this. Jayaprakash Narayan succeeded because he never sought power for himself. We need a band of leaders who must declare that they are fighting an ideological battle and not seeking power for themselves. Only then will they be believed. Will I live to see that day? I am not sure. But I know one thing. People will wake up from their slumber one day, whatever the quality of opium used to keep them sedated.
I have great faith in the people of India.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 25, 2022 under the title ‘Struggle against darkness’. The writer is a former Union minister and currently, vice-president, All-India Trinamool Congress
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