We are closernow to Ambedkar’s dreaded forecast

Republic Day this year was a little different. Beyond the splendour of the military parade, the day played out variously in places into which media attention does not normally stray.

On January 26 this year, a motorcycle gang invaded the venue of a flag-raising event in Kasganj, a small town in western Uttar Pradesh. It happened to be a Muslim area. The motorcyclists insisted, aside from the solemnity of the event, that Muslim participants should earn their right to celebrate, by mouthing slogans venerating the Indian nation as a mother: Bharat Mata ki Jai.

Next, in an escalating charter of demands, participants were ordered to shout slogans wishing ‘death upon Pakistan’: Pakistan Murdabad.

Violence soon erupted, and evidence suggests that the sole casualty that day may have been one among the armed provocateurs who set out that day to stir up trouble. He may have been an accidental victim of a carelessly used firearm.

Nobody waited to ascertain facts. Enraged mobs soon made a bonfire of shops and commercial establishments belonging to Kasganj’s Muslims. Local police fanned out across the town, arresting a number of Muslim youth, merely on the word of the mob.

Rewind three years, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first Republic Day – January 26, 2015. Sharing the President’s platform with the prime minister and the visiting dignitary -- US President Barack Obama – Vice President Hamid Ansari stood to attention as the national anthem rang out and India’s national flag was raised. Others on the dais, including the prime minister and the defence minister, saluted as the flag was raised, a duty normally reserved for men in military uniform.

As a former diplomat who once headed the protocol division in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Ansari was aware of what the moment demanded. Yet his observance of protocol drew a flurry of abuse on social media, where he was honoured with the epithet of the jihadi.

Ansari’s office responded within a day. On occasions when the flag is raised at official events, it is the custom that the principal dignitary – in this instance, the President – takes the salute. Men in uniform would also salute. All who ranked lower than the President in the civilian order were required under India’s ‘Flag Code’ to stand to attention, no more.

It was a dignified response, though it failed to calm the fury the vice president had invited. The extreme ‘patriotism’ that has dominated the public arena during Modi’s four years in office sets conditions that are impossible to meet.

Modi’s impact on the social and communal fabric during his four years as prime minister cannot be understood without reference to the tactical use his ardent flock has made of the internet and new media. The 2014 electoral contest made history with its use of high-technology in projecting Modi’s claim to the top political job. And Modi’s enthusiasm for the new media was evident in a meeting early in his tenure with Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg.

According to an entry on Modi’s personal website, Sandberg congratulated him at this meeting on his “exceptional use of Facebook to connect with voters”. Soon afterwards, Modi reportedly instructed colleagues in the party and the government to use social media to get the word out but to stay clear of direct interactions with news media.

Small wonder then that the most recent review of press freedom in India by the global organisation, Reporters Without Borders (known by the French acronym of RSF), concluded that ultra-nationalist elements have created an aura of fear among journalists and social media users. “Online smear campaigns”, the RSF observed, have been frequent, suffused with crass insults and threats of physical violence, that especially target female media practitioners.

The most difficult legacy of Modi’s four years may well be right-wing groups’ assumption of the power to determine what the attributes of a “true” Indian citizen should be. Every citizen, they seem to proclaim, must pay allegiance to the nation as a mother even in terms that may be inconsistent with the precepts of certain faiths, and accept the bovine species as somehow more privileged than the human. In his valedictory address to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949, B R Ambedkar spoke of the life of contradictions that independent India was about to enter into. In politics, he said, India would have equality embedded in the principle of “one man, one vote”. In its social and economic life, India would have inequality and “by reason of (its) social and economic life, continue to deny the principle of one man, one value”.

Without quite being mindful of this contradiction, which it took a person of Ambedkar’s acuity to identify, India’s political leadership since independence has been aware of the need to maintain a commitment that social and economic equality are absolute imperatives.

In his four years in power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled very strongly that these older verities are of no importance. He may well be pointing the way to the dire prognosis, rendered by the French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot, that India is on a slippery slope towards becoming an “ethno-democracy”.

Ambedkar’s most dreaded forecast, of India becoming a nation of graded freedoms, with certain among its citizens – on grounds of identity – being denied the rights that others enjoyed, is closer to reality after Modi’s four years.

(The writer is a senior journalist, writer and teacher)

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We are closernow to Ambedkar’s dreaded forecast

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