It is imperative to salvage the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr BR Ambedkar for the Indian Republic
From 1908 onwards, Mahatma Gandhi consistently maintained that India ought to be a Republic. Dr BR Ambedkar and Nehru carried forward the Republican sentiment under attack, writes SN Sahu
While Lokmanya Tilak gave the electrifying slogan "Swaraj is my birthright" and stirred the whole nation to rise against British rule, Mahatma Gandhi said in 1921 that the Republic is the birthright of Indians.
The familiar narrative associated with Gandhi is that he envisioned 'village republics' and on many occasions, he spelt it out. What he wrote in the 'Harijan' on July 26, 1942 is worth quoting: “My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity”.
While doing so, he also conjured up the vision of India as a Republic.
It is fascinating to trace Gandhi’s insights on the Republic of India and place them in the context of the constitutionally-enshrined provision defining the republican character of our country.
In fact, the idea of the Republic of India owes its origin to our leaders who demanded it even before the freedom struggle gained momentum. Now, while Mahatma Gandhi is being vilified, with no-holds-barred attacks on him by some leaders adhering to Hindutva, and the top leadership of the country is turning a deaf ear to it, we need to unearth his vision of India as a republican country animated by values of secularism and religious pluralism.
Two years after Mahatma Gandhi started his historic first Satyagraha in South Africa, he wrote in the Indian Opinion on 16th May 1908, “In a king, there can be nothing but condescension towards his subjects. That is why some persons want republics”.
It clearly indicated the vision of our leadership for a Republic for avoiding the monarchical rule firmly based on whims and caprices of a hereditary and unelected authority exercising power unhindered by any system of checks and balances.
Later, on 14th February 1916, he delivered a speech at Missionary Conference in Madras and made the significant statement that “India is really a republican country, and it is because of that it has survived every shock hitherto delivered. Princes and potentates, whether they were Indian-born or foreigners, have hardly touched the vast masses except for collecting revenue. The latter in their turn seem to have rendered unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and for the rest have done much as they have liked”.
It is instructive to note that he in his speech delivered at Amraot on 19th March 1921, he asserted, “To have a Republic, however, is our birthright”, and simultaneously referred to the point that “India has had village republics from time immemorial”.
As stated earlier, Gandhi’s assertion that Republic is our birthright offers a parallel with Lokmanya Tilak’s electrifying words, “Swaraj is my birthright.”
In fact, the demand of Indians for a Republic during British rule was met with punitive measures and deterrent punishment. Gandhiji wrote in Young India on 30th March 1921 that Dr. Cholkar faced persecution for his speech in which he merely discussed about a Republican form of government for India.
Gandhi then stated that if talking about a republican government constituted an offence, then almost every Congressman would be an offender and “not hesitate to think of, and work for, a Republic, if he could not gain his birthright without complete independence”.
In an interview to the Daily Express in Madras on 15th September 1921, responding to a question if Congress should declare India as an independent Republic as suggested by Mahomed Ali, Gandhi said, “It would not satisfy me to declare an Independent Republic. To do that we must be able to fight with the British Government not along the lines of violence, but non-violence.”
Seventeen years later Gandhi, during a discussion with John De Boer in the first week of February 1938, reiterated the same point and said, “If the whole of India accepted non-violence as a creed and a way of life, we should be able to establish a Republic immediately”.
When India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru moved the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly on 13th December 1946 to proclaim India as an Independent, Sovereign and Democratic Republic and to draw up for her future governance a Constitution, Gandhi in a prayer meeting on 12th June 1947 referred to that historic initiative of Nehru for calling the Union of India as Republic and explained its meaning in simple words: “That is, all will live together here”.
His emphasis that all would live together would be the defining feature of idea of the Republic of India was also reflected in his idea of Swaraj which eschewed the rule of majority community or predominance of their faith over the faiths of others.
It was best evidenced on 16th April 1931 when he wrote in Young India, “It has been said that Indian Swaraj will be the rule of the majority community, i.e., the Hindus. There could not be a greater mistake than that. If it were to be true, I for one would refuse to call it Swaraj and would fight it with all the strength at my command, for to me Hind Swaraj is the rule of all people, is the rule of justice. Whether, under rule, the ministers were Hindus or Musalmans or Sikhs and whether legislatures were exclusively filled by the Hindus or Musalmans or any other community, they would have to do even-handed justice.”
Objectives Resolution in Constituent Assembly
When Jawaharlal Nehru moved the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly, he captured the vision of Republic outlined by Gandhi.
In fact, that Objectives Resolution, among others, proclaimed that power would be derived from the people; they would secure justice, equality and all the freedoms be it the freedom of thought, expression, faith, association etc.
It also provided, “adequate safeguards…for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes".
Ambedkar’s vision of Republic
Ambedkar said in the Constituent Assembly that India would get real independence on 26th January 1950. While Nehru gave the inclusive and progressive contents to the emerging Republic of India, Ambedkar made very sharp and pertinent observations which are of contemporary significance.
He pointed out that there was inadequate representation of Muslims in the Assembly and therefore, raised a substantive point that sovereignty to be derived from people would have no meaning if there remained insufficient representation of Muslims.
While doing so, he pinned faith on the “future evolution and the ultimate shape of the social, political and economic structure of this great country.”
Even while candidly admitting that India was divided politically, socially and economically and accepting that several Members of the Constituent Assembly belonged to a “group of warring camps” and he himself was one of the leaders of such a camp, he was convinced that given time and circumstances, nothing in the world would prevent India from becoming united.
“With all our castes and creeds, I have not the slightest hesitation that we shall in some form be a united people,” he said.
He even claimed, “...notwithstanding the agitation of the Muslim League for the partition of India, someday enough light would dawn upon the Muslims themselves and they too will begin to think that a United India is better even for them”.
However, he referred to the situation prevailing in India in the late 1940s and said, “Our difficulty is how to make the heterogeneous mass that we have today take a decision in common and march on the way which leads us to unity.”
Therefore, he urged the majority party to show greatest statesmanship to make friends, to make concessions to the prejudices of people and opponents not prepared to march together for forging unity and solidarity among all the people of India.
He even urged to “…leave aside slogans, …leave aside words which frighten people”.
In fact, what Ambedkar was proposing to the majority party was to show exemplary statesmanship in building a Republic where there would be place for everybody so that power could be legitimately derived from people for governance and running affairs of the state.
Indeed, what Ambedkar was proposing was for the majority party to show exemplary statesmanship in building a Republic where there would be place for everybody so that power could be legitimately derived from people for governance and running affairs of the State.
Such a vision of Ambedkar closely corresponded to Gandhi’s vision of the Republic which for him meant “all will live together”
Ambedkar’s appeal to “…leave aside slogans, …leave aside words which frighten people” and his sage counsel not to settle Hindu-Muslim question by the method of war resonates in twenty first century India when religious slogans of the majority community are being invoked to frighten minorities and calls for arms and genocide are issued by so-called Sants to commit genocide against Muslims.
The thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi on Republic outlined above and Ambedkar’s vision concerning statesmanship on the majority party even to appeal to the prejudices of opponents to sustain unity assume critical significance for Republic of India, which is confronting an existential crisis on account of majoritarianism.
Constitution under attack
Our Republic, apart from upholding sovereignty and democracy, must also defend socialist and secular dimensions. Even though these two words were incorporated in the Constitution in 1976, these are of abiding significance for India and flowed from the vision of our leadership while spearheading our freedom struggle.
Mahatma Gandhi stressed on neutrality of State to religion in 1930 when he drafted the resolution on Fundamental Rights for Indian National Congress for its adoption in Karachi session. Ambedkar also stressed on neutrality of State to religion in his proposal for the Constitution for the United States of India.
Secularism has been held to be the basic structure of the Constitution by the Supreme Court in its historic Bommai judgement delivered by a nine judge bench.
The "Jana Gana" which Tagore invoked in our national anthem remains supreme and its mandate and might is there at the root of our Republic.
This secular fabric needs to be strengthened. The danger to it has come from the philosophy and outlook of some political parties, extra-electoral forces and their actions.
Opening of Babri Masjid for building a Hindu shrine there, its eventual demolition and the Supreme Court-mandated construction of a temple in place of the Babri Mosque put at stake our secular credentials. Such danger is getting compounded day by day. The march of the Republic in many sectors has been impressive. In several others, it is very disappointing.
Inequality is deepening
The single most danger is that inequality has been increasing and marginalising people and making them victims of exploitation. When the Constitution was adopted on 26th November 1949, Dr. Ambedkar very rightly said that "On 26th January 1950 we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. ... How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? We will do so by putting our political democracy in peril."
In fact, on the 73rd Republic Day, the contradictions pointed out by Ambedkar have only multiplied and have assumed the proportions of a crisis. It is extremely important to salvage the Republic.
Educate, organise and agitate
The market economy is reducing everything to the level of commodities. The value of health and education and many vital aspects of our life is now being determined by market forces and corporates. This is very dangerous. We need to salvage this great Republic. Only 'Jana Gana' can do it.
Ambedkar's slogan "Educate, Organise and Agitate " has to be followed to deepen public reasoning and democracy to empower people to use constitutional methods for reducing inequality and contradictions pointed out by Mahatma Gandhi.
He wrote in 'Young India' on 29th January 1925, “Real Swaraj will come, not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.”
On the occasion of the celebrations of the golden jubilee of our independence and the 73rd Republic Day, the people’s capacity to regulate the government is getting diminished by criminalising dissent and disproportionate emphasis on duties at the cost of rights of citizens.
The vision of Gandhi and Ambedkar must be remembered and implemented in earnest to save the Indian Republic.
(The writer served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India K R Narayanan)