Coalitions of conscience, guardians of the political
February 7, 2020
“…with this coalition of conscience we will be able to get something moving again.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
“We are carrying out our fundamental duty to protect our Constitution.”
Chandrashekhar Azad (On the steps of Jama Masjid, Delhi)
“From what we hear on the ground, most people are nervous. They think Muslims are being targeted now, and Christians will be next,”
Sister Grace Mary (A senior nun)
Nothing could have been a more eloquent testimony to the resurrection of the "Gandhian moment": a peaceful Long March of Jamia Milia Islamia University students in New Delhi getting ready to pay homage to the frail old anarchist whose life- teachings have found fertile ground in the expanding public spaces of protests against the CAA /NRC/NPR legislations, now over a month old and ever-expanding: a young man pumped up with prejudice and hatred, attempting to stop that march with a gun. On January 30 no less. On that day the lone gunman a teenager by police accounts, fired at the students injuring a student in the arm chanting slogans before taking aim even as the police watched on till he had fired; only then did one of them walk up to him and take him away.
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Who says the past is dead? It exists in the here and now. The binaries of good and evil that erupted into stark view on January 30 1948, the cleaving of an idea of humanism and the banality of evil personified in an individual was on display on January 30—2020. But the moment had its cruel ironies: the bullet that caught Shadab Farooq, a student of mass communications, in the arm,was fired by a young man who described himself a “Ram Bhakt” On Janauary 30—1948 that is—Gandhi fell to the bullet fired at point-blank range with a sigh of “Ram” on his lips.
For seventy years Gandhi has remained a ceremonial necessity, a face adorning currency notes, his contribution to history allowed to fade as Ashis Nandy once pointed out, in the very country it was made in. But symbols are not necessarily ceremonial: the memory of a personality may fade but the ideas left behind as legacies linger in the dim recesses of a social consciousness, embedded in a heritage of influence to which we turn in times of acute distress even if we do not recognize or acknowledge the source of that heritage.
That moment of distress, of social anxiety generated by the evil machinations of the Nation-State to tear up an already fragile social fabric, itself stitched through centuries by a community of communities, is upon us and so a little over seven decades after a bullet took that frail anarchist’s life vast swathes of Indians–women, young and old, the educated and those yearning to be educated, the religious minorities even Hindus and the secualrists—are reaching out to the wisdom of the past as their guide to the future; reclaiming that past as their present.
Since December last, the anti-citizenship legislation protestors that grow in number across the country, each centre of protest turning into a beacon for others, have shown the world that this country is capable of reclaiming its inheritance of civil disobedience and satyagraha and much more. They have resurrected a humanism defined by moral duty and obligation to fellow beings, discovering in oneself the capacity and willingness to engage with each other for our mutual well being. Examples of this idea of humanism shed a refulgent light on the protests as precursors of a new idea of India as a truly righteous republic:
At Shaheen Bagh protestors held a solidarity meeting a day after a film maker tweeted that they were celebrating the expulsion of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in 1990. They invited two Kashmiri artists to grace the occasion of solidarity with the victims of militancy in the Valley. One of them, the film maker MK Raina told India Today, that the “decision of Shaheen Bagh protesters to stand by Kashmiri Pandits shows that those agitating at Shaheen Bagh are not exclusive in their approach and also understand the pain of others who have undergone similar experiences in the past, be that the Pandits in Kashmir or Sikhs in Punjab.”
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Mid December protesters at Jantar Mantar, peacefully demonstrating against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the NRC were seen kneeling in front of Delhi Police personnel, offering flowers roses and chanting: “Dilli police baat karo, aao humare saath chalo” (Delhi Police, talk with us. Come along with us).”
On 20th January Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan out on modified bail visited Shaheen Bagh after a stop at Jamia Milia University and had this to say to the protestors gathered there: “In history we heard about Jallianwala Bagh: now the whole world knows Shaheen Bagh” where women have been lading protests for over a month. Ravan had a copy of the Constitution in his hand.
In contrast the sitting West Delhi BJP MP promised voters that Shaheen Bagh would be cleared within hours if voted to power. This followed the script set by the chief guardian of the law, Home Minster Amit Shah who pitched Shaheen Bagh against Bharat Mata making it clear that the former were, well, not really for Bharat Mata and therefore not patriotic.
A month earlier Ravan had also spoken, Constitution in hand from the steps of Jama Masjid. Reading out The Preamble he added: “It is our responsibility to protect the unity and the Constitution of this country. From the steps of Jama Masjid, let us send a message across the world that we will keep our democratic protest going to keep this country’s peace and brotherhood and to fight against the black law trying to break this,”
“We are carrying out our fundamental duty to protect the Constitution”
Watch | "We are carrying out our fundamental duty (to protect our constitution)": Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad on protests against #CitizenshipAct. #CitizenshipAmendmentAct #CAAProtests pic.twitter.com/igqYyw1e9l
— NDTV (@ndtv) January 17, 2020
Christians too pitched in. In Kolkata late January, principals of missionary schools, church priests and nuns walked 1.5-km from St Paul’s Cathedral to Gandhi’s statue in the city, to pay homage to“an apostle of non-violence and harmony,’ according to a spokesperson for the rally. The peaceful marchers.held placards that read ‘No division among people’, ‘We are all children of Jesus’ and ‘No CAA‘. They also chanted hymns in English and Bengali.
‘We only wanted to drive home the message that all are equal and we should not discriminate between religions and communities,’ said the principal of a renowned missionary school.
The Kolkata diocese of the Church of North India (CNI) also urged other Protestant churches to join the rally reported the PTI January 20.
What we are witnessing is clear enough: a heroic attempt at recovery of the self as human, led by women who have galvanized by their example so many diverse sections of the population to undertake a similar journey of discovery, towards a universal humanism that predates and even informs all sectarian divisions between humankind; religious, social ideological. This humanism echoes Guru Nanak's words:
“Before becoming a Muslim, a Sikh, a Hindu or a Christian let us become a human first”
The appropriation of this legacy is not a conscious act as is the case with ideologically driven strikers claiming the inheritance of a Marxist or other modernist critiques to right a wrong. This humanism also transcends limited demands of immediate gain for any specific interest-group. Humanism as an ideal has been discounted precisely by movements around the world led either by the Left or Right claiming specific partisan demands. As Amit Chaudhuri points out, humanism was made “illegitimate both by by the Left and Right as an idea that was more exclusionary than inclusive.” (Indian Express, January 25, 2020).
At first glance, the protests too seem to have specific demands and goals directed as they are against the citizenship legislations. But they are that and more: the protestors questioning the power of the government to legislate acts that divide people, that will pit one community against another in a never-before State-directed civil schism are also pre-empting that schism by a unity that has been experiential but never articulated as such. Never before in the history of Independent India has such a large number of civil society members asserted the right to be heard and seen as a people united in their diversity, a people moreover who consider it their moral duty to exercise a solidarity immanent in their history, their memories and the stories of their forbears; in the gaps left by an educational system that is increasingly stripped of any communitarian ethos.
Driven by a discourse of free market self-interest that has been failing them in their expectations for decades and over the last six year subjected to a blatantly divisive Hindutva ideology based on what Vinay Lal calls "Temple Hinduism"; witness to the misuse of parliamentary power rushing through legislations as legitimations of a majoritarian ambition to establish a Hindu Nation-State, an increasingly large number of Indians are reacting in ways that are truly historic.
In the first place, by counter posing to the authoritarian exclusiveness of the State apparatus infected by the virus of majoritarian ambitions a humanism that is both moral and diffuse, decentered; democratic because it is non-hierarchical. It contains within itself the open-endedness of an associative and dialogic discourse. This humanism could prompt a Hindu to participate in the protests anywhere in the country, to say along with Gandhi: Yes I am a Hindu “…I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.”
In a quintessential sense that makes for a unique idea of Indian-ness. It permits an Indian across caste class or gender to attend their places of worship, not do so, read the fiery poems of Namdeo Dhasal and lyrics of Bob Dylan songs, eat mutton Dhansak, watch someone else chew on beef cutlets or pork vindaloo. The joys of diversity have been savoured by Indians for centuries despite being told by their British rulers that they were “natives” Muslims or Hindus and not European or cosmopolitan or, yes, humanists. The BJP has fallen for this Orientalist trope, rejecting a universalist identity for India. So, with a gun to our temple it shouts: To be Indian is to be Hindu. The protestors have replied: to be Indian is to be human.
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So the protests harken to and recover the humanist legacy that goes back in time and space. Gandhi’s forbears were the nineteenth century renunciates. Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy. The protestors have learnt their lessons-as-spheres of influence well; but they have gone ahead of their great forbears for they have also based their humanism on the Constitution. How should one read their relationship with the Constitution? Chaudhuri sees it as an exercise in humanism not nationalism.
Constitutions do certainly reflect the humanist as well as nationalist sentiment and aspirations. But they remain as texts till they are brought to life by the people in whose name founding fathers if you will, composed them as frameworks for a nation in the making. More than in any other part of the world, the Indian Constitution has been referenced by protestors asserting their humanity. In the bargain, they have invested the Constitution with their humanism; its text has come to life; it shimmers with the warm glow of the protestors’ moral righteousness that its Preamble endorses. The Constitution is no longer a text alone; has been made to walk the talk. It has become an ally and a reference point; both an activist and an arbiter of activism’s moral and legal obligations.
It has been made an intrinsic part of the "coalition of conscience."
But the most important element in this historic moment that has escaped notice is the political one. In her essay, Sakuntala mentions the creation of this political space by the protestors, a space, or publicness that becomes the metaphor for an arena in which people distanced, fenced off, from the trappings of parliamentary power, or politics, can engage in their moral duty to question, converse and if necessary disobey a law if it is found to be unjust. As one commentor said of Gandhi, “Gandhi [was] convinced that there is no place for blind obedience to any law , because they can be unjust and violate the idea and principles of the highest law.” (Jahanbegloo, 112)
The public sphere becomes the space where questions arise; not just in an individual but in the consciousness of the collective. Gandhi created that public space for Indians to collectively question laws, and decide on an action plan of civil disobedience.
The act of mass civil disobedience attended by non-violence was a political act, constituting an ‘epistemological break’ from either individual acts of violence against British officials or petitions to the British Indian government to do the right thing by Indians, relying on the goodness of the Raj. In a fundamental sense then Gandhi created the political animal by appealing to the Indian’s highest sense of moral duty and love for swarajya through non-violence and collective action.The petition raj was Politics; civil disobedience was the Political.
The anti-citizenship-legislations protests are political and of profound significance even for politics. It can hardly be denied that the protests constitute the capacity for diverse sets of people to come together for the exchange of political interests and act. When ordinary people, homemakers, students women of all ages and the old, of all faiths come together and reveal themselves on a stage that can channel their desire to act, then that becomes the public sphere of the political; that is the political human being asserting her humanity through nonviolent action all for the good of a social harmony that is being stamped out of their shared experiences.
It is the magnitude of this publicness, this praxis of humanism that has had its effect on the politics of the nation. Opposition ruled states have not woken up to sudden bouts of conscience about the immorality of the citizenship legislations. They have joined in the chorus of protests because they have sensed the political encroaching upon their capacity to engage in and sustain their politics. That is why some BJP members and allies are expressing doubts. Other opposition or coalition-led state governments have expressed dissenting voices. Some bravehearts such as Kapil Sibal and Jairam Ramesh have voiced doubts if states can disagree once parliament has cleared the legislations.
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Prabhat Patnaik brilliantly counters the reductionist arguments of Sibal and Ramesh by referencing the Nuremberg Principle that officials could not, as Nazi officers being tried at Nuremberg for war crimes attempted to do, plead that they were merely carrying out orders. A person carrying out the orders has to take responsibility for them, for their consequences. An order to kill innocents is unjust and no matter what, an official carrying them out has to be held accountable and would be held culpable of war crimes, or as the Nuremberg trial was to establish, crimes against humanity. (Indian Express, January 23, 2020)
Patnaik points out that the Nuremberg principle formed the cornerstone of democratic jurisprudence “including our own” The principle has both a positive aspect and normative one; the former implies that no one can escape doing something defined as illegal under the principle. The moral aspect is crucial for it enjoins upon the individual and in this case the state governments to refuse to follow the law simply because it is morally incorrect and against the Constitution. The legal luminaries of the Congress had not taken into account this ethical principle that enables state governments to refuse to act against the Constitution.
It is entirely possible as Patnaik concludes, that the Supreme Court may uphold the legislations’ constitutionally valid. In which case states refusing to implement the legislations may incur the threat of dismissal. That moment may prove a critical test for the morality in the sphere of politics-as-power. It’s too early to say how states will react if the SC validates the legislations and both the spheres can only hope for a morally upright verdict.
One thing seems clear. The pressure on the states that have refused to cooperate may have been borne of the expediency of politics and vote retention but one could also see their refusal as a moral response to an unstated call from the public sphere, from the political arena to remember the Nuremberg principle of culpability in the execution of an immoral and unconstitutional order. in the worst case scenario, the implementation of such discriminating legislation would create a second partition, rather various partitions within the country, this time more vicious and more destructive than the first, partitions from which despite the hallucinations of the Hindu Right, there may be no stepping back or healing.
In the meantime, we live in hope. Not in any expectation of a modicum of respect for the Constitution inflecting the actions of State power and its organized hatreds for the people fearing an apocalypse but in the belief that the newfound humanity, sired in an associative space will expand in precisely the way it has grown so far: decentralized yet committed, leaderless yet focused. Under the circumstances, a centralized repressive power may be hard put to stamp out the spreading flames of ethical dissent in which women and the young play such an inspirational role.
An Epilogue for a New Beginning:
“Where should we go after the last frontiers/ Where should the birds fly after the last sky?” – Mahmoud Darwish.
Here my friend, mon ami, dost, comrade from Cox’s Bazaar or other hells, Here…
“Where women hold up half the sky”
India Today: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/kashmiri-pandits-exodusday-migration-refugees-1638294-2020-01-19.
Jahanbegloo, Ramin: The Disobedient Indian, Speaking Tiger. New Delhi. 2018.
Darwish Cited in After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives by Edward Said, Photographs by Jean Mohr. Vintage. London. 1986.
First published in The Beacon.
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