A Republic Day with a difference: Blessed to witness this generation reclaim the legacy of the Mahatma
In reclaiming the Republic and the Constitution, youth are also reclaiming the noble legacy of Gandhi in its true spirit,beyond the placing of statues and ritual obeisance on formal occasions
Having lived almost my entire life inside the Jamia Millia campus, I am quite accustomed to periodic disturbances and student protests.
But each time some transitory argument got out of hand and disrupted the peace of the university campus for a few hours, things would get back to normal by the next morning. Even lingering protests against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses did not cause prolonged disruption despite the passions involved.
As a matter of convention, a posse of policemen would be posted at strategic points along the road that bifurcates the university campus.
This time it was different because Delhi Police entered the university in the evening of December 15, lobbed tear gas shells inside the library named after one of its mentors and late President of India, Dr Zakir Husain, and attacked students brutally. Since then the Jamia biradari, as it is known, has gathered every day to protest.
There are no obvious leaders or detailed plans; and yet the protests are not chaotic or unstructured, a tribute to the spontaneous organisational skills of the young men and women.
The fact that the protest site is meticulously cleared of all debris within minutes of winding up each evening, again speaks volumes for the discipline and sense of responsibility of the protestors.
The immediate cause of the protest against police brutality has fused into the larger cause of reaffirmation of the Constitution, reflected in slogans and graffiti.
Although on the surface one sees a celebration of unity and diversity, of solidarity, there are tensions below the surface. While some frown on the presence of local politicians, largely because of existing issues and ego clashes, others periodically resort to slogans that highlight their religious identity. Certainly, the powers that be would be looking for chinks in the armour of protestors to drive wedges of disagreement and undermine the collective voice of dissent. Unity in diversity has reclaimed the streets and minds of India.
Even as the constitutional and nationalist character of the protest is consciously projected, questions about how differences can be made to converge into a common cause without necessarily obliterating them will continue to challenge the protestors.
Chanting Jai Shri Ram or Allah-o-Akbar cannot by any stretch be considered inappropriate for public discourse if one understands their essence; although it is true that aggressive versions of the two chants have been used to promote political Hinduism and political Islam. As a result, even the slightest whisper is assumed to undermine the secular credentials of the campaign.
Bhajans with allusions drawn from the Ramayana on the one hand and the revolutionary syntax of ‘Naam Rahega bus Allah ka, Jo Ghaib bhi hai Hazir bhi’ are not only patently secular and wholesome but also accepted widely to be so.
Insistence on cultural unity and symbols which are most familiar to them might cause some temporary distress and discomfort to one group of protestors or the other. But going beyond that to accuse representatives or members of political parties as agents provocateur can lead the protest to a slippery slope.
The universality of the CAA-NRC protests has debunked the myth that the NDA has successfully polarised India across religious lines. Sadly, not only did their conduct, including in the present matter, indicate their intent to divide but many people assumed that they had been successful: India was believed to have become majoritarian and waiting for a second Partition.
The youth have repudiated the presumption with their show of solidarity and unity. It is therefore unwise, even damaging to the core endeavour, to allow any display of emotion that suggests separateness of concern and aspiration. But undoubtedly, this cannot be an excuse for seeking dilution of individuality or group identity.
People, who insist on religion-specific slogans to prove that they cannot be taken for granted even in common pursuits, must also take responsibility for keeping unity of purpose and perception intact. The greater cause often calls for minor and transitory compromises and accommodation without diluting self-esteem.
When diverse people come together, they have to learn to communicate amongst themselves before communicating their message of unity to the wider world.
This movement’s greatest accomplishment is that conversations which had dried up are starting again, the dialogue that had disappeared is engaging people again, the issues which had caused disquiet are being debated again.
There is a dimension of the protest that is visible and audible; there is also a feature that survives the sunset. A lone protester, rather an advocate of justice, a Ph.D scholar called Sajid, holding placards and the national flag keeps a nightly vigil so that the movement does not sleep.
Not far away, another group of young and old hold candles on their palms even as their clothes display the syllables of ‘AZADI’. The boundary grill behind them is covered with beautiful paintings and stylistic graffiti about the past, the present and the future of Jamia and its community of alumni, students, faculty, support staff and well-wishers. Ironically, slogans of constitutional aspiration undermine the harshness of the metallic grill.
There could be no better symbolic display of freedom repudiating control. In standing up for Jamia, the university blessed by the likes of Dr Zakir Husain and Mahatma Gandhi, the youth have laid claim to the Constitution and the country.
It remains for the rest of our countrymen and women to similarly smash the artificial walls and moats that have been created to divide Indians. This is the primary aim of the Constitution reflected in the Preamble that has been read out innumerable times during the current protests.
Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity sum up the entire range of human aspirations for a wholesome existence. There can be different interpretations about one or the other of these; but together they point to an essential unifying dimension of our public discourse. Without dialogue and interpersonal communication, they might still retain their vitality as rallying points but dialogue will make them living corner stones of our national existence.
There are no signs yet of an inclination on the part of the establishment for a dialogue. Instead, periodic resort to threats of coercion, excessive use of police power and even unbecoming disinformation have been unleashed to intimidate and demoralise the youth.
It is surprising that people in power have forgotten the history of Satyagraha or civil disobedience that Mahatma Gandhi practised not just in India but also far beyond the shores of India. Badshah Khan, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King were but a few of the stars that continued to symbolise the indomitable spirit of man and the Mahatma’s faith in ‘Satyagraha’.
In reclaiming the Republic and the Constitution, the youth of India are also reclaiming the noble legacy of Mahatma Gandhi in its true spirit, beyond the placing of statues and ritual obeisance on formal occasions.
We have to rebuild India beyond fear and hate. Perhaps even greater sacrifices will be called for. The victory we seek, and deserve, might not be around the corner. Perseverance and fortitude must remain our constant companion as we strive for another Freedom, this time not from outsiders but our own.
That the right to debate and dissent will be amplified like never before is already evident in judicial observations but we await a definitive pronouncement from the Supreme Court that has in recent months given dignity and autonomy a place of prominence in jurisprudence.
Today the Constitution speaks through the young people who have braved adverse conditions to hold up the Preamble in one hand and the National Flag in the other.
Indeed, we are blessed to have witnessed unqualified devotion by an entire generation to the ideals and the idea of India bequeathed to us by the founders of modern India.
(The writer is a senior lawyer and a senior Congressman. Views expressed are the author’s own)