Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Will Constitution Day become something to celebrate or to rue?

Today is Constitution Day, so I post here the article which will be published in my Guptara Garmagaram column in the next issue of The International Indian magazine (Dubai):

The Government of India has recently announced that November 26 would from now on be marked as “Constitution Day”. The question is of course: how come this government, which has done less than any other government in our history to uphold the Constitution, has seen fit to make this move?

Is the move entirely cynical – to provide opportunities to raise questions about the Constitution, and thus subvert it?

Or does it show Modiji, perhaps as a result of the defeat in Bihar, finally moving in the direction of the Constitution?

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, it is worth considering that the Indian Constitution is a counter-cultural document – it was created by our Western-educated elites who were seeking to meld together into one nation what had been diverse and even opposed groups of people.

Not only were there hundreds of independent kingdoms to persuade, bribe, cajole and even blundgeon into joining the new nation of India, there was the enormous challenge of reforming our culture.

Throughout history, Indians had owed primary loyalty to their own family, kinship-group, or caste. How to move them into identifying primarily with the alien notion of a nation?

In our third generation of being an independent nation, it is clear that the project of creating a nation has made huge progress.

Bollywood has played its role, and educational and administrative institutions have played their role. More important, ordinary citizens have played their role, in treating fairly (e.g. in relation to jobs and even marriages) those belonging to other people groups.

But, as all of us know, not all Bollywood films have supported Constitutional norms. Not all educational and administrative institutions have been scrupulous about maintaining fairness and equality. Not everyone has upheld liberty, equality and fraternity.

Some individuals and groups have surreptitiously or openly subverted our Constitutional values. Indeed, some have fought with violence and openly false propaganda against the consequences of the Constitution’s drive to weaken and abolish the prevalence of caste and gender disadvantage, and the restriction of behaviour, thought and other liberties which were so firmly established in our traditions.

In view of all that, it is also worth remembering that the Indian elite which was most involved in the debates in our Constitutional Assembly had considerable differences of opinion. That is clearly evidenced by the records of these debates from December 1946 to January 1950 – fortunately the records can all be easily consulted at

But, if you don’t want to wrestle with all those debates, just consider that the “father of the Constituion”, Dr B. R. Ambedkar resigned from the cabinet in 1951, when parliament stalled his draft of the Hindu Code Bill, which sought to enshrine gender equality in our laws of inheritance and marriage.

He was merely taking forward the principles and values of the Constitution, but was opposed by the same sorts of conservative forces as had violently opposed, a century earlier, the introduction of English as a language of instruction.

No wonder the Constitution has been described as 'first and foremost a social document. ... The majority of India's constitutional provisions either directly … further the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement” (Granville Austin, historian and authority on the Indian Constitution).

How was this so? Because Ambedkar’s text provided, in the Constitution, guarantees and protections for citizens’ liberties, including the abolition of untouchability, freedom of religion, and the outlawing of all forms of discrimination. The system of reservations for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and Other Backward Classes was directly embedded in the Constitution by Ambedkar as a way of eradicating or at lessening the socio-economic inequalities and lack of opportunities for India's oppressed peoples.

The strife, tension and chaos we see in Indian politics today is the result of a clash between three things: first, the civilising momentum of the Constitution; second, the reaction of traditionally privileged groups upset at losing their privileges, and so fighting with tooth and claw to try to maintain their privileges for as long as possible; and, third, the assertiveness of those who had been conquered, subdued and suppressed, and who find in the Constitution a promise that is rarely fully delivered but which they now have the liberty and the means to try to insist is in fact delivered.

The government’s move to create a Constitution Day will play a momentous part in either ensuring that the Constitution does deliver liberty, equality, fraternity and well being to all Indians, or in finally killing off our historically unprecedented experiment of creating a nation.

So far, our Constitution has served us well.

Even though there have no doubt been abuses here and there, we would do well to support it, not merely somehow marginally acknowledging it’s existence, but also supporting it fully by our words and our deeds.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Impementation: work versus magic

An article in a particular publication says that our Prime Minister is talking a lot all over the world but not doing enough about implementation at home.

Here is my response:

Arre Bhai, why are you talking about unimportant things like implementation?

Don’t you realize the power of sound?

We only had to change the name of Bombay to Mumbai, and it instantly became a world-class city.

Didn’t you notice the huge improvement in quality of life when we changed Madras to Chennai? Bangalore to Bengaluru? Calcutta to Kolkata?

No? You did not?

Then it is hardly surprising that you lack belief in Modimagic.

Stand in the dunce’s corner and repeat to yourself 5000 times “I will believe in Magic-ji, I will believe in Mantras-ji, I will believe in Modi-ji.”

Sunday, 8 November 2015

On Prime Minister Modi's embarrassment in Bihar and the future of tolerance in India

Here is the latest of my Dadu columns, which is to be published in the next issue of FORWARD Press Magazine (New Delhi):

Dear Dadu

After the rising tide of intolerance following the election of Modiji, does the triumph of the Grand Alliance in Bihar represent a victory for tolerance?

Is our tradition in fact tolerant or intolerant?



Dear Shanti

We have indeed seen an incredible rise in intolerance in India following Modiji’s elevation to the Prime Ministership. However, why it was that he and the BJP lost so spectacularly in Bihar is not entirely clear. It may have been partly a vote for tolerance, but it was also certainly at least to a certain extent the lack of a credible local Bihari leader of the BJP, and it was no doubt also partly coalition arithmetic.

The upshot is that the BJP needs reject its dependence on RSS, so that it has some hope of becoming a mature party which represents the entire nation rather than a party focused only on the interests of a particular set of people. Though the RSS and BJP claim to be “majoritarian”, in fact they do not represent the interests even of all Hindus. RSS/BJP represent the interests only of those upper castes who think that India should become Hindutvan.

Hindutva is merely the latest (from the early 20th century AD) expression of an intolerant strand of Indian tradition which goes back at least to the 6th century BC – you may recollect that Mahavira and the Buddha were both anti-casteist, and were both violently opposed for that reason. The Buddha’s death may have been due to poisoning, and certainly the way his cremation site was treated showed extreme intolerance of his views for centuries. In India, intolerance has historically had little to do with religion. It has mostly been about caste. But of course caste and religion are inextricably connected. Over the last century, we have tried to disentangle the two – with only very little success.

By contrast to our intolerant side, we have also had an extremely tolerant side to our traditions, not only because of the continuing influence of Mahavira, the Buddha, and other thinkers and leaders within India but, since the sixteenth century because of the influence of the colonial powers. In the case of most of the colonialists, the tolerance was for the same reason as most Indian tolerance today: we are prepared to tolerate anything, provided we can retain our privileges, and continue to make money!

However, in the case of some of the colonialists (and some of us Indians today), we are committed to tolerance for its own sake. Modern Indians may not know that the tradition of tolerance among the colonialists arose from the Bible, where God reveals Himself as tolerating our rebellion and even sin – but He tolerates these for the purpose of our realising our stupidity and returning to a relationship with Him. That is what gave rise to the tradition of tolerance in the West – though that is now being infected by “tolerance for the sake of keeping my privileges and making as much money as I can”. In the Bible, too, God asks us to be tolerant of many things as well as intolerant of many things.

So there are further questions raised by your question: Why should we be tolerant? Tolerant of what? Are there things of which we should be intolerant? When should we be tolerant and when intolerant?

In this letter, I will take only the first of these questions: Why should we be tolerant?

There are of course many reasons, but here are some key ones.

First, because we do not know everything. Indeed, we know so little that even our wisdom might prove to be mere foolishness or even darkness (as Jesus the Lord pointed out in the biography written by Luke, chapter 11, verse 35).

Second, because others may know more than us, or at least they may know some key things that we don’t know. It takes only a little bit of ignorance about the facts to reach completely the wrong conclusions.

Third, because intolerance shuts people down – they don’t start thinking like you do, they simply continue thinking the way they were thinking, but now they don’t speak up. Resentment and demotivation don’t make for outstanding performance. So intolerance leads directly to an underperforming society and economy.

Let me put my answer to that question in the following way: intolerance is the use of power to impose my own view on someone else. It arises therefore from stupidity as well as from the misuse of power.

The right use of power is to encourage people to flourish. No two flowers are alike. No two humans are alike. Diversity is a divine gift.

Finally, let me conclude this letter with the following questions to you: How much intolerance do you see in our society around you? In our families? In our educational institutions? In fact, how much intolerance do you see in yourself?

In myself, I see a perennial temptation to misusing power and to imposing my own views. God wants me, rather, to be humble, to be a learner, to offer whatever wisdom I might have in the spirit of sharing food, as one beggar might share it with another.