When I look around, I see the comprehensive betrayal of so many of the pledges and dreams of our freedom struggle and our Constitution. I find the state of our republic extremely worrying and why the times that we are living through are so dark. I will explain why I fear that we are witnessing today indeed to nothing less than the calamitous near-collapse of our republic.
Covid-19 second wave
The past months of course have been particularly traumatic for the Indian people. Death had touched almost every home. We have watched the fires and smoke from 24×7 funeral pyres spilling onto the sidewalks and parks of our shining cities. Bodies cast by impoverished broken families into the rivers to be eaten by vultures and stray dogs. We have borne witness to the mass graves of hundreds of anonymous bodies.
We need to recognize that a large part of these deaths was preventable, had the state acted with responsibility, resolve, integrity, caring, and timeliness. Despite a year and a quarter to prepare, hospital beds, oxygen supplies, ICU facilities, essential medicines, and vaccines were not organized. Instead, the government immersed itself in reckless super-spreading events organized for political mileage – massive election rallies, the Uttar Pradesh-panchayat elections, and the Kumbh.
The government did little to heed the counsel of science, of its own committees of experts or of the state governments, acting instead with dangerous hubris.
What the Indian people are enduring in this time of unfolding tumult are the wages of electing a government bereft of both competence and compassion, of choosing small-minded bigots of unbridled hubris as our leaders, and of the failure of all institutions of democracy that should have held the executive accountable.
Prime Minister Modi announced the largest lockdown on the planet and in human history, and with among the smallest relief packages. His announcement excluded the poor even from the design of the protections.
After all, nine out of ten workers are casual workers and the large majority of city residents live in slum shanties. How can they “work from home”, when they eat what they earn each day? How can they keep “social distance” when ten people live in a one-room shanty? How can they “wash their hands regularly”, when even in normal times, slum residents spend a fourth of their income to buy two pots of water? An
The resultant collapse of the economy, which was already in a slowdown, has spawned the gravest economic recession after Independence. Surveys tell us that 97% of our people are worse off after the pandemic, but the hardest impact has been on the laboring poor.
Collapse of republic
Let me go beyond the pandemic to illustrate the collapse of the republic that I speak of. This can be seen through the prism of three wars waged by the state against segments of its own people during the seven years of the present government.
These are wars firstly against informal workers, then against India’s Muslims, and finally, against dissenters and protestors, those who stand with the poor and with minorities.
Take the first, the silent war with informal workers. Take the lack of even elementary labour protections, social security for more than 90% of our workers. Take the starved public health system as another example. India spends among the lowest in the world on public health, a little over 1% of gross domestic product.
The second war waged by this government against its people is the war against Indian Muslims. There were three parts to this battle against India’s Muslims. In the first term of this government, from 2014 to 2019, this was first an electoral battle, to render India’s Muslims politically irrelevant.
The second was the social battle, to normalize, and even valorize hatred and bigotry against India’s Muslims. Runaway hate speech by BJP leaders increased by several hundred percent. From the senior leadership of the BJP and RSS down to its rank and file, there were attempts to stigmatize and erase all parts of India’s Islamic legacy, even renaming roads and cities that had names of Islamic origin, shrill campaigns against “cow-slaughter” and “love jihad” and the demolishing of mosques.
Even more, the social war against India’s Muslims was reflected in the alarming rise of lynchings, with Muslims being victims of mob killing in the majority of instances of mob lynching. There are chilling echoes of mob lynchings of African-Americans in the United States
Gandhi had led us to freedom with the incandescent vision of a humane and inclusive country that belonged equally to people of every faith, caste, language, and gender. But the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh believes in Hindu supremacy.
The Modi government interpreted its expanded mandate for a second term as an emphatic open mandate for the RSS project of hate and unequal citizenship based on religious identity. After all, in 2019, it was an open agenda of hate, against Muslims within India, and Pakistan outside India.
Modi garnered higher vote support – 37.6% of all voters. Of these, most were of Hindus, indicating the consolidation and radicalization of India’s Hindus. The Modi-Shah-RSS triumvirate saw this as a mandate for the government to transform India to their alternate imagination for the Indian nation.
Rapid steps followed, such as Article 370, the triple talaq law and the Supreme Court’s Ram Temple judgment. A decisive further step was the amendments to India’s Citizenship Law, the National Register of Citizens and National Population Register that formally, in law, barred undocumented Muslims from the same access to fast-tracked citizenship that was available to people of other religious identities.
The third enemy that this regime identified was of voices and movements of dissent, those who stand with the working poor, with Muslims, and for the defense of India’s Constitution.
Against this enemy, we have seen the misuse of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, National Security Act, and so on, for what were alleged to be Maoist conspiracies behind the Bhima Koregoan and Delhi riot violence. We have seen the taming of the media, its corporate takeover, and the penalizing, even jailing of independent journalists.
We have seen the punishing of the few officials who still offer independent advice, the destruction of the institutions of independent civil service, and the abject willingness – often even eagerness – of the police to be used as petty instruments for advancing the unconstitutional political agenda of the ruling party and its targeting of dissenters and Muslims.
The failure of the higher judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, to actively defend the rights of minorities and the poor makes it gravely culpable. We forget too easily the lessons of history. After all, Hitler in Nazi Germany was lawfully elected and adored by a majority of the German people.
The horrors of the holocaust should be etched in our minds and hearts to remind us that democracy is not just the will of the majority. It is equally the protection of minorities, in which the roles of the higher judiciary, independent civil service, and independent media are crucial. Each of these has let down India’s minorities, the Indian people and the Indian republic at a time when these were most under threat.
Are these alone responsible for bringing our republic to this state of collapse? Arundhati Roy, speaking of the pandemic, said Covid-19 is not just a virus – it is also an X-Ray, of our society and government. What does this X-Ray reveal? Not just a state that has so profoundly failed its people. Even more culpably, it reveals a spectacularly uncaring middle class, who choose and applaud these leaders and their policies.
We need also to emphasize that the collapse of the republic is also not just the handiwork of the present Union government, although it has hastened this. Major culpability for India arriving at this point lies with most of the political establishment across most of the political spectrum. Their role in communal riots has tended always to be majoritarian, violating both the letter and spirit of the Constitution.
Successive governments have targeted innocent Muslims for years, even decades, misusing anti-terror laws.
Do I see hope that we will be able to reclaim our republic, rebuild the humane and inclusive country imagined during the freedom struggle and promised in our Constitution? I must confess that there are times when my hope gets clouded by despair these days. But I can still hope for many reasons. The first is the acts of resistance in these darkest times, built around immense courage, peace, and non-violence and also the shining idea of solidarity.
The peaceful anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act, protest that arose spontaneously across the country was not just in powerful opposition to a 1,000-word law. It was a popular uprising about these very questions – who does this country belong to, who not, and on what terms.
India was founded as a humane and inclusive country that would belong equally to people of every identity. The significance of the nationwide peaceful protests against CAA was the magnificent and spontaneous unity of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians that were on display everywhere, on college campuses as much as in working-class settlements. The farmers’ protests carried forward these ideas of peaceful struggle with solidarity.
I can hold onto hope also because every second Indian is today below the age of 25 years. We are home to the largest numbers of young people in the world. They have to decide the country they wish to grow old in and leave for their children. I am sure they will choose well, much better than the generations before them.