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No Tyranny Lasts Forever

Mathew John Mathew John
15 Aug 2022

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been’” -- Kurt Vonnegut

Call it, if you will, the gripe of dotage but as one who is very nearly a midnight’s child, the seventy-fifth anniversary of our Independence is not an occasion for celebration but for critical reminiscence. In fact, ever since I learnt the particulars of the culminating final stretch of our freedom struggle, I have felt that this historic day should be observed as a day of sombre remembrance and not one of joyous festivities, for the simple reason that our freedom came alongside a horrific man-made tragedy.

Three score and fifteen years ago, a traumatic caesarean parturition sundered one geographical entity and brought forth two bruised and bloodied nations. Our road to freedom was besmirched by unspeakable inhumanity on either side of a blood-drenched border as man killed man in crazed religious frenzy, leaving behind a vale of tears. Between one and two million men, women and children were butchered and up to twenty million people displaced in this holocaust.

What makes this mass slaughter more unconscionable than the Nazi planned mass murder of European Jews is that it was not the offshoot of a tyrant using the power of the State, its instruments and its jackboots to cause hellish mayhem but was committed by ordinary citizens brandishing swords, spears, butchers’ knives, guns and even their bare hands. Human lives were snuffed out in a collective, psychological state of “thoughtlessness”, a term used by Hannah Arendt to describe the banality of the evil committed by one of the greatest criminals in history, Adolph Eichmann whose dastardly actions were devoid of rational thought.

Millions perished or were rendered homeless, but the killers and their abettors in their millions quietly slipped back as anonymous lawful citizens of the two newly independent nations. These murderous vectors of hate were quiescent but must have felt that their actions were justified, especially as there was no retribution for the heinous crimes committed. The cardinal mistake that our founding fathers made was to believe that erasure of that nightmarish period was the way forward, but by this ostrich-like attitude of letting the killers go scot-free without even so much as a reprimand, the poison of communalism, albeit dormant, hung in the air, primed to infect future generations. The Mahatma was assassinated by a rabid communalist, but as many commentators have noted, the great man’s spirit was already broken by the knowledge that millions of his fellow countrymen were not only unrepentant about the inhuman savagery but nurtured and spread that communal bigotry. 

What the country badly needed in that deeply traumatic period was restorative justice which, in contrast to the traditional system of retributive justice, brings together the offenders, the victims and representatives of the wider community to share their experience of what happened, to create a consensus on actions to compensate those affected, to counsel rather than punish the offenders and to take remedial measures to prevent a reoccurrence. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa set up after the end of apartheid was one such body that was a crucial component of the transition to a peaceful, fraternal democracy. As Desmond Tutu stated at that time, it was necessary “to look the beast in the eye” so that such a horror would not recur. By all accounts, the TRC was largely successful in providing the much-needed salve for a hurting nation. Newly independent India, however, tried to wish away the problem by brushing it under the carpet.  We are now reaping the whirlwind for that costly oversight. 

In the context of that horrific, inauspicious beginning and more importantly, our fraught situation today, the anniversary of our nation’s Independence is as good a time as any to take stock of how we have fared as a democracy in relation to the two values that matter most in a truly egalitarian society viz.  freedom and fraternity, without which there can be neither equality nor justice. In his soaring ‘tryst with destiny’ oration as our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, apart from pinpointing the challenge of grappling with the dire problems of poverty, ignorance, disease and inequality of opportunity, stressed on the criticality of freedom and communal harmony. On the indivisibility of freedom, these were his mighty words: “We shall never allow that torch of freedom to be blown out, however high the wind or stormy the tempest.” 

Significantly, in the concluding part of his speech, he addressed the gravest fault line in our society: “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.” 

The strength of a democracy is tested in troubled waters and, in my time so far, which is almost as advanced in years as independent India, there has been one occasion when our freedom has not just threatened but overtly abridged. The only direct assault on democracy and freedom of speech happened during the Emergency, from June 1975 to March 1977, when Indira Gandhi trampled all over the Constitution to remain in power. It was, quite simply, lumpen fascism or gunda raj that deployed the stick and intimidation to instill fear, with hardly any method or subtlety to the madness. 

The Emergency presided over by Sanjay Gandhi and his thugs, was fascist to an extreme, the only saving grace (if, at all, you can call it that) being that their victims were not identified based on caste or creed but, for the most part, for their political affiliations. The regime repeatedly claimed that communal passions were a threat to the integrity of the country and needed to be stamped out. The government clamped down on the RSS, arresting Sarsanghchalak Babasaheb Deoras and other leaders and banned the organization.

In a reprehensible betrayal of the JP movement, Deoras and Vajpayee wrote several letters of apology to Indira Gandhi, seeking a compromise. Vajpayee managed to spend most of the Emergency on parole at his residence.

Surrounded by goons and lathi-wielding cops, Indira Gandhi lost touch with her people which showed when, at her weakest in terms of popularity, she bought into the narrative spun by her coterie of sycophants that people were supportive of the discipline and efficiency engendered by the Emergency measures (trains ran on time ala Mussolini’s Italy), which prompted her to call for a General Election that, unintendedly, restored democracy and the rule of law. Commentators have given her undeserved credit for doing the democratic thing by holding an election, overlooking the fact that she called it under the mistaken impression that her party would triumph. 

There is today an insidious and infinitely more menacing majoritarian tyranny in place, operating behind the veneer of democracy. In a lethally effective subversion of democracy, it has, instead of tampering with the Constitution, bent the institutions of governance to do its bidding, vindicating Montesquieu’s warning that there is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.

I shall, however, refrain from expounding on this theme as I have been at it “like a stuck gramophone record”, to use my dear wife’s colourful put-down, but more importantly because my daughter – an absolute martinet – believes that discretion is the better part of valour, and is insistent that this review of our journey since Independence should look at the positive achievements of our Prime Minister in bolstering freedom and fraternity. So here goes!

Rewind to circa 2014, which was a watershed moment in our history. The NDA, led from the front by Narendra Modi, won a resounding mandate from the people. Like never before, the electorate sent a clear message to the political class that it would not tolerate inept governance, corruption and the fake secular agenda of the UPA, or allow politicians to deflect from the issues that matter such as poverty alleviation, employment, price control, health and education, which were the themes of Modi’s election speeches. The NDA offered hope of a new dawn based on inclusive growth and development.

The PM’s beguiling slogan “Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” captured the essence of this nation’s foremost mission of fostering social solidarity premised on the doctrine that every human being matters. The minorities felt reassured by the PM’s emphatic assertion in Kerala in 2015 that the freedom to have, to retain, and to adopt a religion or belief is the personal choice of a citizen. He thundered: “My government will not allow any religious group belonging to the majority or minority, to incite hatred against others either overtly or covertly.” On more than one occasion, he made appeals for preserving our core values of diversity, tolerance and plurality, calling on Hindus and Muslims to work together to fight poverty instead of fighting one another. Bliss it was that dawn to be alive!

Given communalism’s tortured, tangled history in the subcontinent, communal harmony on both sides of the border is viscerally linked to our relations with Pakistan. Seeming to recognize this reality, Prime Minister Modi’s stunning surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas day, 2015 and his bonhomie with Nawaz Sharif was one of the most audacious and dramatic gambits in international diplomacy. The impromptu act of camaraderie promised a much-needed release from the prison walls of hate and distrust that have marked India-Pakistan relations. It required immense courage to brush off the objections of one’s strongest supporters whose life’s passion has been anti-Pakistan hysteria. Suddenly, there was hope in the air. There was even speculation about a mahasanghatan of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with a common currency and open trade ala the European Union. Modi induced us to dream that dream!

The Prime Minister, a silver-tongued orator, has been eloquent about defending our freedom and democracy. According to him, “Democracy is our commitment. It is our great legacy, a legacy we simply cannot compromise.” On another occasion, striking a personal note, he stated, “Democracy is in our DNA. I am the son of a freedom fighter, and the son of a freedom fighter automatically imbibes the value of democracy.” He has also underlined the importance of preserving the federal structure of our country as enshrined in the Constitution. 

No one can deny that in his lofty speeches, the Prime Minister upheld the values and objectives spelt out in the Preamble of our Constitution, namely, to secure to all its citizens: justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.  But alas! Like somebody said, the tongue doesn’t get things done. Or to quote Eliot’s evocation of such a disjunction: “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.”

Hopefully, from hereon, the PM will do a reboot and match his actions with his words! As this is asking for the moon, I instead seek solace from what my wise brother from different parents said to me about “accepting finite disappointment but never losing infinite hope.” Here is his quote on keeping the flame of hope alive – an excerpt from a sermon of Reverend Theodore Parker delivered in 1853: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. (Thomas) Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.” No tyranny is forever. Amen to that!

(The writer is a former civil servant. Views are personal.) 
 

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