Questions staring India in the face

One can go on adding to them or brush aside many of them by pointing out that they are not peculiar to India alone; but they cannot be wished away

Representative image
Representative image

GN Devy

In several Indian languages, the term used for a deeply enigmatic question is ‘YakshPrashna’. The term draws upon the Mahabharata in which Dharma, also known as Yudhishtir, has to answer a series of difficult moral and metaphysical questions put by his father Yama. Dharma manages to satisfy Yama by his thoughtful answers, and eventually the Pandavas emerge triumphant during the Kurukshetra war.

Several such Yaksh Questions (YXQs) are today staring India in the face. Here is a random list of some intriguing YXQs.

Who does not know that the rich have become super-rich and the poor have been pauperised? The working classes have to work more and yet receive less and less in return. Inflation is increasing by the day and employment opportunities have gone down. All material conditions clearly point towards a social upheaval. Yet, why have people crushed by material deprivation chosen to suffer silently?

While governments are busy reducing the rights of individuals, why is it that citizens continue to return a political party to power which is bound to further reduce the citizen’s right of choice? While the representatives of people are actively imposing anti-people policies on the nation, why do people not express their dissatisfaction with the individuals who have failed to represent their aspirations?

If media was seen in the past as one of the pillars of democracy, and if democracy is indeed the system that we believe operates in our country, why do we find the media caving in? If speaking truth to power spells out the very reason for media’s existence, why is it that it is seen doing everything else but speaking truth? When media persons try to do so, and if as a result they are assassinated or imprisoned, why do their media colleagues prefer to remain silent?

India became a nation after a long struggle for freedom which required great sacrifice by thousands and hard work of transforming our society from its medieval biases to one with a modern and egalitarian outlook. Why are people then ready to give up the hard-won freedom and modernity and sliding back to superstition, fantasy and bravado, characteristics of the medieval ages?

Why did people respond to calls for banging thalis and clapping in times of the pandemic that ought to have been countered through scientific temper? Why is it that in less than three quarters of a century, we have turned away from the memories of the freedom struggle? Why are they lavishing praise on those who helped the colonial masters and lampoon those who faced gallows, bullets and prisons?

Why do we treat violation of privacy of individuals and a pervasive state surveillance as a matter not worthy of our concern? How and why have we got intoxicated with religion and have turned to avenging alleged excesses of rulers in the distant past? Why do we take the accident of someone’s birth in a given religion as a mark of her or his criminality and join the mobs in acts of lynching?

Heterodoxy marks India’s history for several millennia. In the past we accepted worshiping many gods. Why are we then projecting theological and sectarian identity as our primary identity? Why has the worst orthodoxy so suddenly replaced the ideas propagated by a long line of saints and Sufis? Why are we so keen on negating spirituality and projecting the mere outer forms of religion? Why have we forgotten the essence of the scriptures and yet are fighting in the name of God?

When the nation took birth as a republic, as a union of states, how have we allowed ourselves to become an increasingly unitary nation and the Centre to become increasingly indifferent to the space of the states? When diversity was accepted as the foundation of India, how is it that we have developed so much contempt for cultural, linguistic and religious differences? Why are we so intolerant of diverse dress codes and food habits, diverse views and cultural backgrounds of the people of India?

Though the segregation of the legislative, judiciary and executive has been unambiguously worked out in the Constitution, why has the bureaucracy caved in and judiciary not assertive enough in maintaining its independence?

When the defence forces are devised to keep themselves completely above sectarian politics, how is it that they too appear to have imbibed elements of communalism? Why have institutions that should work as watch-dogs for keeping governments within the Constiutional boundaries have developed a competitive affinity to the ruling regime? Why do we not have officers and high-functionaries who can reverse the partisan use of agencies?

While India has several hundred universities, higher education institutions and scientific bodies, why have they not succeeded in developing a critique of the system? Why do they not raise questions that will serve our democracy and work in the interests of the people? Why are they found almost absent on the national scene when required to defend reason and sanity, compassion and empathy?

One can go on adding to these YXQs. One can brush aside many of them by pointing out that some of them are not peculiar to India alone. One may also point to similar instances dug up from the earlier decades, by taking recourse to ‘what about’ then?

Yet, none of these TV-studio tactics can help wish them away. The mythical Dharma had a series of snap replies ready. For us, if we do offer answers, those answers in turn may beg for a series of related questions. Yet, these YXQs must be tackled if India is to survive as a modern democracy and republic.

People in general tend to believe that the Constitution of India which we accepted as India’s ‘dharma’ is still in force, even if the letters in it have acquired a greater value than the spirit behind those letters. Alas, the irony is that the Constitution that should have weaned people away from their fatalism and brought them closer to a vibrant understanding of their rights and responsibilities, itself seems to suffer at the hands of a fatalistic indifference. People appear to be resigned, fatalistically waiting forever for the change to fall on the nation from the skies.

It’s time for each one of us to remind ourselves that the Constitution is our primary dharma. India cannot allow it to be replaced with any Manusmriti-like text which seeks to justify caste differences as a divine retribution.

The Constitution is at present under siege by a non-state-actor organisation on the one hand and a greed-driven deep-state on the other hand. Therefore, a free and fearless expression becomes our only instrument of change, and the Constitution the roadmap for India’s future. To believe in the inviolable supremacy of the Constitution is the only way to recovering the idea of India.

(The writer is an eminent author, academic and cultural activist. Views are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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