5th August would be remembered as the end of an epoch in Indian History, when the Hindu nationalist forces ‘won’ against the Islamic rule and oppression over the 16th & 17th centuries, and removed the blot from the glorious annals of the history of ‘Hindustan’. There has been a lot of criticism in the secular circles of the populace of how the BJP-led government has espoused the cause of the RSS led faction of the society over the years, touting for the return of India to the glorious days of Nehru, Indira, and Rao. The present state of order is not an outcome of a few years of political canvassing or just the demolition of Babri Masjid or the 1975 Emergency. The sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic of India, since its genesis in 1947, has been subjected to political ideologies, governance mechanisms, institutional lobbying, and capricious tendencies of various stakeholders.
Ever since the day of the Bhoomi-pujan started itching near, the proclaimed custodian of India’s Constitution, the Congress also jumped into the fray with Kamal Nath, ex-CM of Madhya Pradesh, organizing recital of Hanuman Chalisa on the eve of the event, Priyanka Gandhi claiming credit for the culmination of the long-pending issue, and various Congress politicians donating silver bricks for the cause. Several people were caught off guard with this brazen display of nationalist Hindutva appeasement by the Congress, something which it has vehemently opposed over the past few years. But, here also, we are the victims of our binary thinking, yearning to segregate the political ecosystem into right or wrong. How would we feel, if we are told that it was Rajiv Gandhi, who opened the gates of the Babri Masjid in the 1980s for Hindu worship, against the advice of several well-intending intellectuals, to appease Hindutva vote bank? The gates had been kept closed to prevent communal flare-ups, and by opening the gates, Rajiv opened a can of worms that ignited communal hatred and passions over the last three decades. PV Narsimha Rao, who is credited for India’s economic liberalization in 1991 and subsequent tremendous growth, also faltered on the issue of secularism, not because the Masjid was demolished on his watch, but because he reneged on his promise to the people of India when he didn’t reconstruct the masjid after its demolition, and swept the whole issue under the rug of India’s ‘tigerisation’, as Morgan Stanley prophesied back then.
The subtle erosion of secularism by the Gandhi clan
It can’t be denied that Jawahar Lal Nehru was a brilliant statesman, secular to the core, and a firm believer in the parliamentary values of debates and discourses. After Partition, when a group of Hindu & Sikh refugees coming from Pakistan was attacking Muslims, he with disregard to his own safety declared to the murderous mob- “If you harm one single hair on the head of one Muslim, I will send a tank in and blast you to bits”. Till his death in 1964, when he died a ‘broken man’ after India’s humiliating defeat by China, he had no significant political opponents, and Hindutva as a political force was still nascent in independent India.
However, what followed was a string of bad decisions that shattered Congress’s secular image. Indira Gandhi, who had earlier raised Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a political opponent in Punjab to the Akali Dal, embarked upon a violent and hasty Operation Blue Star, when the now rogue Bhindranwale, a proponent of free Khalistan, occupied and fortified the Golden Temple premises. This brought the secession movement of Sikhs for Khalistan, which was till then only confined to a few Sikhs based in Canada, into the national consciousness of the mainstream Sikh population of India. It also hurt the religious sentiments of the Sikhs immensely, who were shattered with the destruction of their revered monument and the manuscripts it housed.
Indira Gandhi, a strongman, was nevertheless a secular, like Nehru, and reinstated her two Sikh personal guards, who had been removed on the basis of their faith, after the Operation Blue Star. However, she was riddled with bullets by the two very same guards, who wanted to avenge the atrocities heaped upon the Golden Temple by the state. What followed in the coming days is one of the darkest periods of Indian history, when anti-Sikh pogrom raged in the capital, with the tacit approval of the government, and a complicit police. Rajiv Gandhi, instead of apologizing to the nation for the inhumanity wreaked upon his brethren, said- “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes a little.”
Rajiv Gandhi, although having the biggest majority in the Parliament of any governments till then, was always riddled with a ‘peculiar sense of political insecurity’ and his period is full of appeasements of various religious factions for maintaining support to the government. After the historical Shah Bano verdict by Supreme Court in 1985, which was a great step towards protection of equality and rights of Muslim women, he hastily passed the Muslim Women’s Bill, which reinstated the age-old procedure of triple talaq and absolved Muslim man of any responsibility for maintenance of his estranged wife, who was now legally made dependent her family and charities. He also banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses for the very same reason and started his 1989 election campaign from Ayodhya, to portray his religious affiliations for political gains.
A Western paradigm of development
Jawaharlal Nehru was an authoritarian, and he subverted democracy when he dismissed a fairly elected Communist government in Kerala in 1959, bombed the Christians of Nagaland, who were demanding secession from the newly formed Indian State. However, this was tempered by his aversion to dictatorship and his strict adherence to democratic procedures. He was aware of megalomaniacal tendencies he was prone to, and had once written a scathing essay under a pseudonym in 1937 in a Calcutta magazine, criticising himself and urging Indians to be wary of Nehru, lest he becomes a dictator.
Indira Gandhi, a Nehruvian in many respects, was elevated to the post of PM after the demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri. Once derogatorily dubbed as a goongi gudiya (dumb doll), after her ascension, by the veteran Congress leaders, she soon rose to become one of the most authoritarian political figures India has ever witnessed. Under Sanjay Gandhi, her government embarked upon a gargantuan urban beautification (euphemism for zealous slum removal) programme and a much more draconian rural sterilisation programme. This dictatorial project, which terrorized and shocked the Indians earned Indira and Sanjay Gandhi humungous accolades from the West. The enormity of the programme can be assessed by the fact that the sterilisation in India was 15 times that done by the Nazis in Germany. She didn’t stop here and imposed a National Emergency in 1975, which lasted for 21 months. Habeas Corpus was suspended, activists were jailed, electricity to the various presses was disconnected, and it was proclaimed that ‘India is Indira. Indira is India.’
The rising inequality in India and the starker urban-rural divide, starting from the 1991 liberalisation of the Indian economy, continued into the UPA coalition government, which in the name of ‘development’ dealt criminally with the tribals, embarking upon a state-sponsored sadist adventure of Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt, usurping land held by them since generations without following due process of law, rendering them landless and without a sympathetic ear in the government.
Subversion of independent judiciary: Indira called the shots
The Indian Constitution makers, aware of the possible self-aggrandizing tendencies of the legislature and the executive, strove to keep the judiciary independent, loosely emulating the US constitution, via Article 50 of the Directive Principles to the State, and the judiciary remained relatively free from encroachment endeavors by the other pillars of the state. However, matters came to an impasse during Indira’s term, starting with her appointing of Justice AN Ray as the Chief Justice of India, bypassing three other senior judges (against the norm of appointment of senior-most judges to the post) in 1973. Toying with the idea of discarding the parliamentary form of government for the presidential form, the government was given a profound blow in the Kesavananda Bharati case verdict, when a bench of 13 judges promulgating the principle of the basic structure of constitution reaffirmed the supremacy of the people through the Constitution and not the government. However, the erstwhile goongi gudiya, undeterred, imposed the emergency in 1975, driving another nail in the coffin of Indian democracy.
It’s true with great power, comes a greater tendency to flout conventions and rules.
The newly elected Nehru cabinet became mired in the Jeep Scandal case in 1948 when V.K. Krishna Menon, the Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, conveniently overlooked protocols and ended up signing a Rs 80 lakh contract to buy army jeeps from a foreign firm.
The Indira Gandhi government has been accused of blatant display of favoritism, when Sanjay’s whim to open a car factory based on a grotesque blueprint, was facilitated and expedited by the Cabinet where he was provided with 450 acres of (fertile) land in 1970, upon a commitment that he will deliver 50,000 small cars within a year. He didn’t deliver even one over the next 5 years. Once the private capital raised by his family network was exhausted, the banks nationalized by Indira were raided for unsecured loans.
The Rajiv Gandhi government was involved in the massive Bofors Scandal case, which was a defense contract between the Indian government and Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors. There were credible allegations of massive kickbacks received by Indian officials from the company. What followed was massive coverups, repeated shake-up of the Cabinet, confrontation of the government with the President who threatened to dismiss the government and demotion and sacking of VP Singh, a minister with an ironclad reputation for integrity who was looking closely into the allegations. The UPA coalition, which held the reins of the government from 2004 to 2014, was also riddled with various scams and allegations like Neera Radia tapes and the preposterous Commonwealth Games Scam of 2010.
This serpentine march of the idea of India, lacerated with these wounds, is still in its nascent stages and has a long way to go. Maybe it is time to take a step back and take a look at things as they are, before taking up the cudgels again for values of secularism, democracy, liberty & equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution. We, as the benefactors of the immense sacrifices by our freedom fighters against the imperialist British Empire, have the obligation to protect, nurture and promulgate the idea of India enshrined in our Constitution, and bequeath a better India to our progeny. And a good start in this direction would be to stop looking into the past and focusing on the future, and the challenges and opportunities it would entail.
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