Republic Day voices: how can Indians reclaim the Republic ? 

Activist Shabnam Hashmi, author Vijayendra Mohanti, historian Dr Rizwan Kaiser, Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde and former trade unionist Ashishkanti Ghosh reflect on how the Republic has changed

Republic Day voices: how can Indians reclaim the Republic ? 

Sanjukta Basu

“I think the most important thing that has changed is the right to criticise. Earlier, one could critically look at various problems even within religions and discuss them openly without fear of inviting court cases or being beaten up. There was tolerance for diverse ideas,” says social activist Shabnam Hashmi.

“Also, during UPA rule we had huge fights with political leaders. But there was space for differences of opinion and there was no vindictiveness. The doors did not shut down on you because you disagreed with their policies,” she adds. How can citizens reclaim the Republic and what has changed, we asked some people. This is what they said:

Start ‘doing politics’

Vijayendra Mohanty
Author Co-creator of comic book series ‘Ravanayan

“Doing politics” has acquired an entirely new meaning. Woollyheaded liberals once used it during impotent candle-lit marches and thought not “doing politics” was a good thing in a political system. Now, the rhetoric has been taken up by members of the ruling party. They use it rather indiscriminately, whenever they are asked inconvenient questions. ‘Do not politicise the issue’ they say primly.

They want the public to see their own actions as more than “just politics”, something spiritual perhaps. As it is, the Prime Minister is projecting himself as a sadhu or guru or something. “They are doing politics” therefore has come to be an accusation! The underlying implication is “they think this is a democracy” or “they think due parliamentary process is more important than the Prime Minister’s “Mann ki Baat”.

On a more serious note, how do you reclaim the Republic? Start doing politics. Start supporting the opposition and stop giving caveats such as, “I am not a communist but...” or “I am not a Congress supporter but…”.

It does not matter because the government and the lapdog media will still label you as one or the other, as “Urban Naxal”, “Jihadi”, “Anti-National” “Congress agents” et al. So, you might as well start openly supporting Rahul Gandhi. Because if you do, then there is a slim chance that the BJP might start worrying about an opposition space. BJP is just another political party, not God’s gift. In a multiparty democracy where people cast their votes to choose candidates to work for them, there is no reason the Congress cannot be an option right alongside the BJP. Stop playing along the “If not Modi, then who?” narrative!

Stop demonising protestors

Dr Rizwan Kaiser
Department of History and Culture Jamia Milia Islamia University

Today, we are looking for ‘public’ in the Indian Republic. The public that passionately participates in the democratic processes is missing. What we have are ‘recipients’ of largesse. The government doles out some welfare measures and people are expected to feel obliged and not question them. But a democracy must welcome peaceful protests because protests are self-learning lessons in democracy, it is how people register their participation in the democratic process. But in India today, students, activists, civil society members are being damned and as a result the public is retreating from the democratic process.

Back in my days, students used to feel confident in their power to oppose wrong policies of the government. It was in the 1980s, when Indira Gandhi visited the JNU campus and she was shouted down by a big Left-leaning students’ group. She had to also resign from the post of Chancellor of JNU due to students’ protests. State repression was there even then, students were arrested and detained, but nobody damned us as ‘anti-national’ or ‘terrorists’.

In October 1988, over four lakh farmers from Uttar Pradesh led by Mahendra Singh Tikait led a march to Delhi’s Boat Club with tractors, bullock carts etc. Rajiv Gandhi’s government was even more powerful than the current dispensation with over 400 seats in Parliament but the farmers were not demonised. Even when we do not agree with protests,we must respect people’s right to protest. That is what a Republic is all about.

SC less inclined to stand up

Sanjay Hegde
Senior Advocate Supreme Court

In 1991 I joined the Supreme Court of India as a chamber junior to G. Ramaswami, the then Attorney General of India. That winter, a constitution bench of five judges presided over by Chief Justice M.H. Kania was hearing a matter related to income tax. K.K. Venugopal, then a senior advocate, interrupted the hearing to inform the court that a junior woman lawyer in his chamber had been picked up by Delhi Police on terrorism-related charges. He sought immediate hearing of his habeas corpus petition on her behalf.

The bench heard him and the Attorney General immediately ordered the detenu, Shabnam Lone (daughter of slain People’s Conference leader Abdul Ghani Lone and sister of Sajjad Lone), to be produced before the trial court in Patiala House. That afternoon when she was produced, her lawyer, the late Arun Jaitley, argued and secured her release on bail.

As a young south Indian lawyer lately coming from Bombay, it was wondrous for me to witness how swiftly the Supreme Court came to the rescue of Shabnam Lone. That kind of intervention is today highly unlikely and even in Mr P Chidambaram’s case, an urgent appeal against the rejection of his anticipatory bail was denied a timely listing. Consequently, Chidambaram had to spend months in jail before he finally got the regular bail.

Don’t give up the right to protest

Ashishkanti Ghosh
Senior Citizen Former labour union leader

I am 73 and I retired from Britannia Industries where I was actively involved with labour unions. I was the staff union secretary, workers union vice president and also honorary member of CITU. Today it is a different India for better or for worse. It is not that I have not seen state repression. In the 1970s, my 14-year-old nephew was picked up by the police and incarcerated for two years on non-existent charges during Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s violent crackdown on the Naxals which killed hundreds of Bengali youth in police encounters.

But still, I feel the state’s excesses were not as bad as they are today, and society was not so bereft of morality and ethics. It was a Left-leaning nation, socialism and communism were not abusive words. The media did not treat us as the nation’s enemy. Gulzarilal Nanda, India’s Acting Prime Minister for two short terms, was a labour union leader himself.

Political leaders were made of different mettle. Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Prime Minister, took a bank loan to buy a Fiat car. During the constituent assembly debates, Somnath Lahiri, the only communist leader in the Constituent Assembly, raised objections to every other article of the Constitution but his criticism was appreciated. “This is the true Bolshevik spirit,” quipped Nehru in good humour, honouring the heated debates and deliberations.

In my factory, the company wanted to remove one of the machines and install it elsewhere. Some of us objected to it. We got together, raised slogans and sat on a dharna. The management argued that it was its prerogative to move machines etc, but we told them that the whole point of the labour unions was to keep a check on the management’s powers and prerogatives. That is true for the nation and the elected government too. By keeping a check on power is how we can reclaim the Republic.

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