He lived and died for dignity in diversity

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on October 02, 2019 Published on October 01, 2019

Advocating unity Gandhi believed that accommodation of India’s diversities was central to building the nation (file photo)   -  THE HINDU

Throughout his life, Gandhi contested inequities of caste and religion. As a result, India emerged as a model of inclusiveness

As a democracy, India’s capacity to accommodate its diversities — societal, religious, linguistic, and regional, among several others — distinguishes it from most of its neighbours. On the 150th anniversary of his birth, we’d do well to acknowledge that we owe this miracle to Mahatma Gandhi.

His life-long struggle to make his countrymen accept that an accommodation of India’s diversities was central to melding much of the Sub-Continent into one nation came to fruition with India’s Independence on August 15, 1947. Without such accommodations, India would have struggled to survive as a country and not continue to thrive and sparkle as one.

Most of all, through much of his life, Gandhi sought to overcome the inequities of caste and the ruinous — often murderous — divisions of religion. Although he did not live to see it, the outcome of his efforts was India’s adoption of a Constitution remarkable for the sheer breadth and depth of its support for secularism and fairness to the underdog.

In a gushing tribute to the founding document of the Indian Republic, the Dalit writer, Chandra Bhan Prasad observed that but for the Constitution, “society as we know it would have hardly allowed a Dalit, someone from the community of rat hunters,” to join JNU for higher studies. It is also no accident that such empowerment of India’s weakest has, as the economist and columnist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar observed, “seen the rise of almost 4,000 Dalit millionaire businessmen, something unthinkable in the past.”

Cultural acceptance

Gandhi’s other struggle was to find acceptance for the country’s Muslims in a predominantly Hindu society as members of a shared social order and as equal citizens of the Indian Republic. Although the 2006 Sachar Committee report did bring out that the community was even more disadvantaged socially and economically than India’s scheduled castes, the fact remains that Muslims in India are now better off than they were at Independence in 1947. Contrary to popular belief, even the fertility rate of the community is falling.

Thanks to Gandhi’s efforts, such accommodation was indeed achieved over the years following Independence in significant measure, allowing the Muslim community in India to amply demonstrate its confidence in the country by contributing to its growth and investing in it.

Some of India’s finest film stars, musicians, artists and industrialists are Muslim. The community has produced brilliant soldiers and scientists who have served the country well. Among so many others in public life, four of India’s 14 Presidents — twice the number from Dalit backgrounds — have been Muslims. The country’s most generous philanthropist, Azim Premji, is also its second richest individual.

It is in the treatment of its disadvantaged and religious minorities that India proudly echoes what Pericles said of Athens over 2,400 years ago in his funeral oration at the end of the Peloponnesian War: ‘Our government, does not copy our neighbours, but is an example to them.”

Inclusion and the BJP

After the BJP came to power in 2014, it was rightly feared that India’s culture of accommodation was beginning to unravel, that dark forces within the governing establishment were bent on ‘Hinduising’ Indian society by marginalising the country’s largest minority, its Muslims. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, had even publicly opined that the Taj Mahal could not be India’s icon. Cow vigilantism had gone out of control with many instances of Muslims lynched across northern India and widely reported in the national and international media. Our country’s image took a beating.

All this must have weighed on Prime Minister Modi’s mind, especially after his spectacular victory in the 2019 general election and the goodwill he has earned in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Lately, he has been increasingly vocal that he was all for an inclusive India. In his 2019 Independence Day speech he emphasised that he stood for the welfare of all Indians and with their trust, going as far as to coin a new slogan: “Sab ka saath, sabka vikas and sab ka vishwas”. Clearly the politician in Modi is realising that a ‘Hindu India’ is impossible to sell and is fast changing tracks.

Ahead of his recent Houston spectacular last month, Modi made it a point to meet representatives of India’s religious minorities — not just Sikhs and Kashmiri Pandits, but Muslims as well. At the recent meetings at the United Nations, India put up a remarkable display of a functioning democracy accommodating immense variety.

Our carefully selected diplomatic team present there, as many back home could easily make out, comprised officers from diverse backgrounds. That by itself more than amplified the point Modi made in his speech at the UN General Assembly, quoting the Sangam-era Tamil poet Kaniyan Pungundranar that “we belong to all places, and to everyone”.

The quote from a Tamil poem is particularly noteworthy, considering not too long back there was much backlash across non-Hindi speaking India to Amit Shah’s assertion that only Hindi could be the country’s national language.

Learning the lessons

The BJP is clearly learning the hard way what Gandhi has been telling all along — that accommodation and compromise by the majority community are essential to hold India together.

On the international stage — which Modi loves to be on — the Hindutva ideology is proving to be a millstone around his neck.

It is too early to conclude from all this that Modi is abandoning the BJP’s muscular Hindutva thrust in national politics. However it is not far-fetched to believe from his recent utterances that there indeed is a rethink going on in his own mind, if not within the BJP itself.

If India is being judged by a different standard by the world from countries like Pakistan and China, it is dawning on the Prime Minister that it is because we Indians, through our Constitution, hold ourselves to a standard of conduct of a much higher order than countries like Pakistan and China.

It is just possible that with the elimination of the Congress as a political force, the BJP might find it easier to be pragmatic and allow a Gandhian reality to trump its self-defeating ideology.


The writer teaches at IISc-Bengaluru.

Published on October 01, 2019
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