Indians across the spectrum are grappling with the salvos fired on Indian democracy by outgoing vice president Hamid Ansari in a farewell interview with Rajya Sabha television (August 9) and at the 25th annual convocation of the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru (August 7, 2017). Both are viewed as a formidable denunciation of the present regime.
The diatribe is obviously aimed at the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Rajya Sabha TV fell under Ansari’s sole jurisdiction for a decade as Vice President of India and Chairman, Rajya Sabha. Suffice to say the channel was notoriously ‘tolerant’ and ‘secular’, and this anti-Hindu character escalated algebraically after Narendra Modi led the National Democratic Alliance to power in May 2014.
While Ansari did not name any political party or individual in the interview, he spoke of the culture of growing intolerance. He said there was a feeling of unease and insecurity among Muslims as the “ambience of acceptance” was under threat. Specific mention was made of incidents of cow vigilantism, lynching, ‘ghar wapsi’, killings of rationalists, comments of some leaders regarding the minority community, etc.
The diatribe is obviously aimed at the Bharatiya Janata Party. However, in fairness, the murders of rationalists in different parts of the country must have personal motives (like property) and cannot be made into a political football. Ghar Wapsi is a legitimate right of Hindus in the face of rampant conversions, and the tragic incidents of cow vigilantism (condemned by the Prime Minister and UP Chief Minister) have moved the spotlight away from the murders of cattle owners by the beef mafia.
While there will always be problems in a nation of India’s size and diversity, it is worth recalling Saudi Arabian columnist, Khalaf Al-Harbi who in May 2015 described India as “the most tolerant nation” on earth, where despite a phenomenal diversity of faiths and languages, “people live in peace and harmony”. Al-Harbi admitted envy “because I come from a part of the world which has one religion and one language and yet there is killing everywhere”, while “India remains the oldest and most important school to teach tolerance and peaceful co-existence regardless of the religious, social, political or ethnic differences”.
How deep is India’s civilisational embrace of diversity? Muslim scholars (former minister Arif Mohammad Khan and columnist Tarek Fatah) hold that after the defeat at Karbala (681 A.D.) and massacre of the Prophet’s grandson Hussain and his tiny army, some ladies of the family fled to India and were protected by Raja Dahir of Sindh. It is said that Mohammad bin Qasim came to India to find and wipe them out. Some survivors of Karbala were taken to the court of Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiyah where, after initial ill-treatment, they were given protection. Little is known of what happened to them subsequently.
Ventilating long-held grievances, Ansari lambasts the Supreme Court for judgments that ‘credible critics’ consider detrimental to secular democracy, specifically its decision of December 11, 1995.
Over the centuries, India has provided shelter to Jews who fled after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in A.D. 70; the Parsi community; the Baha’i community; the Tibetan community including the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa; and permits Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin (a Swedish citizen) to reside here.
Yet, at Bengaluru, in the presence of Chief Justice of India, Jagdish Singh Khehar, and scores of legal alumni, the Vice President pointed fingers at India’s pluralism and secularism. Citing lifelong interest in political philosophy, he quoted John Locke, ‘wherever law ends, tyranny begins’. Observing that the State is prohibited to patronize any particular religion as State religion and is enjoined to observe neutrality, he said, “programmes or principles evolved by political parties based on religion amount to recognizing religion as a part of the political governance which the Constitution expressly prohibits”.
This is a scandalous insinuation and Ansari should have cited evidence. One glaring example that comes to mind is the rising subsidy for Hajj to Saudi Arabia, but he obviously didn’t mean that. Nor has he frowned upon the Hajj panel demanding Rs 25,000 crore to buy planes to make travel for pilgrims more comfortable. The Koran says that once in a lifetime Hajj is mandatory for those who can afford it; politically extracted subsidies hardly meet this criterion.
Ventilating long-held grievances, Ansari lambasts the Supreme Court for judgments that ‘credible critics’ consider detrimental to secular democracy, specifically its decision of December 11, 1995. This refers to the apex Court’s dismissal of a petition to annul Manohar Joshi’s election on grounds of unacceptable speeches by Manohar Joshi, Bal Thackeray, Chhagan Bhujbal and Pramod Nawalkar, on 24 February 1990, at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. Quite an elephantine memory!
Ansari speaks of national integration not amounting to assimilation or homogenization (read integration). Apostles of Muslim exclusivism dread both and abhor the growing desire of ordinary Muslims to break out of enforced mental ghettos. His well-researched speech is full of citations from known Hindu-baiters and proponents of an exclusive Muslim identity in India.
His real concern is the declining presence of Muslims in state assemblies and Parliament, as Indians began to revolt against the zero calorie diet of secularism, minority-ism and socialism.
The Vice President alluded to a gap between ‘equality before the law’ and ‘equal protection of the law’ but failed to note the horrendous persecution of Hindus in West Bengal and Kerala, from where heart-breaking stories surface every day.
Speaking of representation, he said that 61 per cent of MPs elected in 2014 received less than 50 per cent of the votes polled. This is an unfair argument which aims at pushing India into an endless cycle of elections per constituency when increasing numbers of citizens are voting in each election and the popular will in constituency and state is quite explicit. Beneficiaries of the dying Nehruvian establishment, however, are hell-bent upon derailing a settled process that began to give diminishing returns from the time Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan began ensuring that each citizen could cast his/her vote without fear.
His real concern is the declining presence of Muslims in state assemblies and Parliament, as Indians began to revolt against the zero calorie diet of secularism, minority-ism and socialism. Mentioning the failure to reintroduce the Women’s Reservation Bill of 2009 (passed under his watch in the Rajya Sabha, but not taken up in Lok Sabha), he broadly hinted at the need for minority (read Muslim) reservation, pointedly stating that the number of Muslim MPs today stands at 23. Other minority communities are not mentioned at all.
Ansari claims that Scheduled Castes, Muslims, and Christians have a sense of enhanced insecurity as the process of emotional integration has faltered. Ironically, he does not see the contradiction with his own rejection of assimilation and homogenization.
He mentions the growing distress in the farm sector in different States, the persistence of Naxalite insurgencies, re-emergence of language-related identity questions, seeming indifference to excesses against weaker sections, and the unsettled claims of local nationalisms. It would be very unfortunate if the last point indicates support to the separatist drive in Jammu and Kashmir.
Taking a dig at “hyper-nationalism”, he warns against a trend towards sanctification of military might, citing George Washington’s admonition against ‘overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty.’ Again, one wonders if he means that the Indian Army should allow hostile forces to walk all over the nation and not protect the citizenry.
He concludes, “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”. A rather nasty jab from someone supposedly upholding Constitutional values for one long decade.
We need not dignify this with a response. India was a vibrant and united (not uniform) civilization for millennia before it became a nation-state in 1947, and cultural commitments will always constitute the core of its nationhood. Both the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam are today retreating from fundamentalist-driven confrontations on this score. We must not disturb this flow of modern history.
It bears stating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farewell speech in the Rajya Sabha on August 10, wherein he hinted at Hamid Ansari revealing a purely Muslim identity while stepping down from the peaks of public life in India, and said that the “Congressman for decades” would henceforth feel more liberated in exerting his political identity, was mild and restrained, as befits his stature.
Ansari’s wisest contribution to public life was his decision, as chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, to uphold St Stephens College’s decision to reserve seats for Scheduled Caste Christians. As Vice President of India, he could have urged all minority institutions to care for economically weaker members of their respective communities. But he preferred to follow Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s insistence on pushing this burden on ordinary Hindu families, and even now, has not seen fit to take up the issue in the interests of justice and fair play.