“Cultural Nationalism Promotes Intolerance, Arrogant Patriotism”, Says Vice President
In a plural democracy, the ‘other’ is to be none other than the ‘self’
August 8, 2017
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Vice President of India Hamid Ansari’s speech at the National Law School in Bengaluru, his final in the post that he is now retiring from, is a strong reminder of Indian democracy and the Constitution on which it rests. The Vice President, a classical public intellectual, has warned about the creation of the other, saying that in a parliamentary democracy like India the other is the self; has warned about the glorification of military might; the insecurity of Dalits, Muslims even as he dwelt at length on the diversity and freedoms in the Constitution.
In life as in law, terminological inexactitude has its implications. In electoral terms, ‘majority’ is numerical majority as reflected in a particular exercise (e.g. election), does not have permanence and is generally time-specific; the same holds for ‘minority’. Both find reflection in value judgments. In socio-political terminology (e.g. demographic data) ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ are terms indicative of settled situations. These too bring forth value judgments. The question then is whether in regard to ‘citizenship’ under our Constitution with its explicit injunctions on rights and duties, any value judgments should emerge from expressions like ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ and the associated adjectives like ‘majoritarian’ and ‘majorityism’ and ‘minoritarian’and ‘minorityism’? Record shows that these have divisive implications and detract from the Preamble’s quest for ‘Fraternity’.
Within the same ambit, but distinct from it, is the constitutional principle of equality of status and opportunity, amplified through Articles 14, 15, and 16. This equality has to be substantive rather than merely formal and has to be given shape through requisite measures of affirmative action needed in each case so that the journey on the path to development has a common starting point. This would be an effective way of giving shape to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy of Sab Ka Saath Sab Ka Vikas.
It is here that the role of the judicial arm of the state comes into play and, as an acknowledged authority on the Constitution put it, ‘unless the Court strives in every possible way to assure that the Constitution, the law, applies fairly to all citizens, the Court cannot be said to have fulfilled its custodial responsibility.’
How then do we go about creating conditions and space for a more comprehensive realization of the twin objectives of pluralism and secularism and in weaving it into the fabric of a comprehensive actualization of the democratic objectives set forth in the Constitution?
The answer would seem to lie, firstly, in the negation of impediments to the accommodation of diversity institutionally and amongst citizens and, secondly, in the rejuvenation of the institutions and practices through which pluralism and secularism cease to be sites for politico-legal contestation in the functioning of Indian democracy. The two approaches are to be parallel, not sequential. Both necessitate avoidance of sophistry in discourse or induction of personal inclinations in State practice. A more diligent promotion of fraternity, and of our composite culture, in terms of Article 51A (e) and (f) is clearly required. It needs to be done in practice by leaders and followers.
A commonplace suggestion is advocacy of tolerance. Tolerance is a virtue. It is freedom from bigotry. It is also a pragmatic formula for the functioning of society without conflict between different religions, political ideologies, nationalities, ethnic groups, or other us-versus-them divisions.
Yet tolerance alone is not a strong enough foundation for building an inclusive and pluralistic society. It must be coupled with understanding and acceptance. We must, said Swami Vivekananda, ‘not only tolerate other religions, but positively embrace them, as truth is the basis of all religions.’
Acceptance goes a step beyond tolerance. Moving from tolerance to acceptance is a journey that starts within ourselves, within our own understanding and compassion for people who are different to us and from our recognition and acceptance of the ‘other’ that is the raison d’etre of democracy. The challenge is to look beyond the stereotypes and preconceptions that prevent us from accepting others. This makes continuous dialogue unavoidable. It has to become an essential national virtue to promote harmony transcending sectional diversities. The urgency of giving this a practical shape at national, state and local levels through various suggestions in the public domain is highlighted by enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians.
The alternative, however unpalatable, also has to be visualized. There is evidence to suggest that we are a polity at war with itself in which the process of emotional integration has faltered and is in dire need of reinvigoration. On one plane is the question of our commitment to Rule of Law that seems to be under serious threat arising out of the noticeable decline in the efficacy of the institutions of the State, lapses into arbitrary decision-making and even ‘ochlocracy’ or mob rule, and the resultant public disillusionment; on another are questions of fragility and cohesion emanating from impulses that have shifted the political discourse from mere growth centric to vociferous demands for affirmative action and militant protest politics. ‘A culture of silence has yielded to protests’
The vocal distress in the farm sector in different States, the persistence of Naxalite insurgencies, the re-emergence of language related identity questions, seeming indifference to excesses pertaining to weaker sections of society, and the as yet unsettled claims of local nationalisms can no longer be ignored or brushed under the carpet.
The political immobility in relation to Jammu and Kashmir is disconcerting. Alongside are questions about the functioning of what has been called our ‘asymmetrical federation’ and ‘the felt need for a wider, reinvigorated, perspective on the shape of the Union of India’ to overcome the crisis of ‘moral legitimacy’ in its different manifestations.
I have in the foregoing dwelt on two ‘isms’, two value systems, and the imperative need to invest them with greater commitment in word and deed so that the principles of the Constitution and the structure emanating from it are energized. Allow me now to refer to a third ‘ism’ that is foundational for the modern state, is not of recent origin, but much in vogue in an exaggerated manifestation. I refer here to Nationalism.
Scholars have dwelt on the evolution of the idea. The historical precondition of Indian identity was one element of it; so was regional and anti-colonial patriotism. By 1920s a form of pluralistic nationalism had answered the question of how to integrate within it the divergent aspirations of identities based on regional vernacular cultures and religious communities.29 A few years earlier, Rabindranath Tagore had expressed his views on the ‘idolatry of Nation’.
For many decades after independence, a pluralist view of nationalism and Indianness reflective of the widest possible circle of inclusiveness and a ‘salad bowl’ approach, characterized our thinking. More recently an alternate viewpoint of ‘purifying exclusivism’ has tended to intrude into and take over the political and cultural landscape. One manifestation of it is ‘an increasingly fragile national ego’ that threatens to rule out any dissent however innocent. Hyper-nationalism and the closing of the mind is also ‘a manifestation of insecurity about one’s place in the world.’
While ensuring external and domestic security is an essential duty of the state, there seems to be a trend towards sanctification of military might overlooking George Washington’s caution to his countrymen over two centuries earlier about ‘overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty.’
Citizenship does imply national obligations. It necessitates adherence to and affection for the nation in all its rich diversity. This is what nationalism means, and should mean, in a global community of nations. The Israeli scholar Yael Tamir has dwelt on this at some length. Liberal nationalism, she opines, ‘requires a state of mind characterized by tolerance and respect of diversity for members of one’s own group and for others;’ hence it is ‘polycentric by definition’ and ‘celebrates the particularity of culture with the universality of human rights, the social and cultural embeddedness of individuals together with their personal autonomy.’ On the other hand, ‘the version of nationalism that places cultural commitments at its core is usually perceived as the most conservative and illiberal form of nationalism. It promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism’.
What are, or could be, the implications of the latter for pluralism and secularism? It is evident that both would be abridged since both require for their sustenance a climate of opinion and a state practice that eschews intolerance, distances itself from extremist and illiberal nationalism, subscribes in word and deed to the Constitution and its Preamble, and ensures that citizenship irrespective of caste, creed or ideological affiliation is the sole determinant of Indianness.
In our plural secular democracy, therefore, the ‘other’ is to be none other than the ‘self’. Any derogation from it would be detrimental to its core values.
Published first in The Citizen.
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