A certain idea of India

Each Republic Day reminds us of what we once wished to be, and shows us instead what we have become
January 25, 2023

A young man waves the Indian national flag during a ceremony to celebrate the nation’s Republic Day at the Wagah border post, near Amritsar in northern Punjab state on Jan. 26, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Every Jan. 26, Indians celebrate Republic Day, and recall with nostalgia the day when we gave ourselves a constitution, as a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.”

Nations, after all, are not just born; they are also constructed. The citizen of a nation may share a common ethnic origin, but they also share common values.

These values are aspirational: they tell us not just what the people were, but what they desire to achieve and become. This is what we mean when we say “nations are constructed,” that “nations are still in the making.”

India may be an ancient civilization as many are wont to say, but it is still a young nation. And because it is so very young, it has many things to learn.

In 1789, that seminal event in history, the French Revolution gave the world three words that have since inspired millions: ‘liberty,’ ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ (or as I prefer to say, more inclusively, ‘community’).

In 1950, the people of India reaffirmed these values for themselves, pledging to ensure all its citizens “justice, freedom, equality and fraternity.”

“There is another idea of India in circulation, another ideology that publicly challenges the democratic idea and secretly works to sabotage it”

This was the idea of India we grew up with, felt comfortable with, and aspired to, even while we realized that much, very much remained to make ours a more prosperous, egalitarian and inclusive society.

Today, as never before, this idea of India is under threat.

Today there is another idea of India in circulation, another ideology that publicly challenges the democratic idea and secretly works to sabotage it.

It is the idea of India not as a free, inclusive and egalitarian society but as a majoritarian state, based on religious identity, exclusivism and government extortion.

A minority within the majority of Indians aggressively promote the ‘new idea of India’.

What is this new ideology?

For a start, it is not new, but old — very old, feudal and medieval in fact. It believes in privilege, granted through birth (pitrbhumi or fatherland), and solidified through caste and religion (punyabhumi or sacred land).

It sees other ‘faith communities’ as foreign, corrupt, and therefore, shorn of human rights.

The term ‘Hindutva’ or Hinduness claims to express this ideal. It mixes together Hindu mythology, capitalist rapaciousness and fascist control, and considers only those of the majoritarian community to be the genuine citizens of the nation.

How is this new idea of India disseminated?

“The government plans to disempower whole communities of tribal people and Dalits”

Through indoctrination, first of all; textbooks for the young, a ‘New Education Policy,’ TV programs for the old, and strict media control to promote lies, which help glorify a fictitious past and blackout inconvenient facts.

Then, through censorship, either through government diktat or through the brute vandalism of goons.

No wonder today there exists an all-pervasive climate of fear. No one speaks out because everyone is afraid — of being imprisoned as an “urban Naxal” for trying to build a parallel government or getting lynched as anti-nationals by gangs with government support.

But most of all in recent times, the government wants to redefine the whole idea of citizenship by amending the Citizenship Act, so that only Hindus are true citizens, Muslims are entirely excluded, and others are left hanging.

By not declaring what documents are required to define citizenship, the government plans to disempower whole communities of tribal people and Dalits, and place them in concentration camps, otherwise called “detention centers.”

This is why the whole country has erupted in alarm and anger over the Citizen Amendment Act.

This is also why the constitution has become the focus and instrument to engage with the democratic set-up, and assert one’s Indian citizenship without giving up one’s religious identity.

The constitution has provided a metaphor for members of all classes, castes and communities to join in these protests, by arguing that citizenship and democracy belong together.

By placing the constitution at the center of the debate, the young particularly have asked the larger and more important question: what is the kind of India we want?

In India, the idea of citizenship evolved out of a protracted struggle for the country’s freedom, and forged with it was the idea of India. It was not based on religious identity, but on domicile, that is, on who was actually living there and wanted to continue living there.

“Those who want to destroy our constitutional idea of citizenship, played no part in the struggle for independence”

As the historian, Romila Thapar has argued in many of her writings, this idea values the growth of the secular citizen and devalues one’s religious identity.

Whatever civic benefits were earlier provided to select groups by the temple, church or mosque will now be provided by the state to all its citizens.

By making Hindu identity the focus of citizenship and other benefits, the present government has regressed to a medieval concept of the state. But to try to run a modern state according to a medieval and feudal polity is not only futile, it is dangerous — as various examples from contemporary history have shown.

It is worth remarking that those who want to destroy our constitutional idea of citizenship, played no part in the struggle for Independence, and even colluded with the British.

So which idea of India will prevail? Which idea of citizenship will endure? Will it be democratic and secular, with space for all? Or will it be fascist and totalitarian, where dissenters are imprisoned, and compelled to become refugees in their own land?

Each Republic Day reminds us of our choices and challenges us to articulate for ourselves our idea of India.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.