Constitutional Concerns

Veterans Speak Out

[Followng is a press note issued by some former civil servants and armed forces veterans—including Gopalan Balagopal, IAS (Retd); Sundar Burra, IAS (Retd); Anup Mukherjee, IAS (Retd); Ardhendu Sen, IAS (Retd); Air Marshal Vir Narain (Retd); Captain S Prabhala, IN (Retd); Major General S G Vombatkere (Retd).]

Why did senior retired bureaucrats and Veterans of the Armed Forces together organise a Conclave in Delhi on October 10. 2017, on "A Fractured Polity—the Relevance of Gandhi Today", and another on "Hinduism and Hindutva" on January 30, 2018: Gandhiji's death anniversary? Why did they write Open Letters in the last few months raising concerns about the present situation : on vigilantism and hyper-nationalism; the need for a judicial enquiry into the suspicious death of Judge Loya; and violence and discrimination against minorities in India? Air Marshal (Retd) Vir Narain, who chaired the Conclave on January 30, gave the answer: though these groups are generally tight-lipped, they have chosen to speak out now because they felt that they had sworn allegiance to the Constitution of India, and that it does not lapse after their retirement. It is a life-long commitment. They will be failing in their duty if they remain silent when the core values of the Constitution are under threat.

The speakers at the Conclave echoed many of the sentiments expressed by the retired officers in their Open Letters and in the earlier Conclave. Professor (Retd) Ram Puniyani said that the need of the hour is to focus upon liberty, equality and fraternity, and improving the living standards of the poor and disadvantaged in India, rather than upon emotive issues of religion, orchestrated for political gains by whipping up hatred against minorities, hindutva plays on identity; it is Godse's Hinduism but not Gandhi's.

Shri Ashok Vajpeyi, IAS (Retd) pointed out that religions today have grown intolerant, even of their own plurality, and violent as well. As a result, they have ceased to make spiritual progress. Though the Constitution of India is a socio-political document, the values of freedom, justice, equality, fraternity stressed in the Constitution are essentially spiritual values. What is distinctive about Hinduism is its plurality; on the other hand, Hindutva should not be seen as a religious movement at all, but rather as a 19th century attempt at Semitization of the religion, which has led to violence, hatred, and the 'othering' of minorities.

Swami Agnivesh said that there is only one religion, and it stands for truth, compassion, love and justice: values recognised by believers and non-believers alike. All great souls in the various religious traditions have reminded people that God does not live outside people, but within us. A focus on the external realm leads people to divide God for their own purposes: so focus is on 'religion' rather than dharma. Results people are caring for the purity of temples and other places of worship than for their own purity.

There was a general consensus in the Conclave about the need for concerted action to preserve the Constitutional values and rebuild democratic institutions. It was also agreed that Hinduism as a religion should be distinguished from Hindutva as a political project, and that new narratives would be needed to resist the forces of communal polarisation.

In June 2017, retired civil servants through an Open Letter expressed their concern at the growing religious intolerance, vigilantism, hyper-nationalism, authoritarianism and majoritarianism that are threatening India's constitutional and secular values. Condemning the vigilante attacks on Muslims and Dalits, the crack-down on student groups and academics who voice dissent, the witch-hunt against NGOs that are opposing State policies, and the vicious trolling of all those who disagree with the majoritarian ideology, the letter urged all public authorities and Constitutional bodies to defend the spirit of the Constitution of India.

In the same vein, in July 2017, a group of 114 Veterans of the Indian Armed Forces addressed a letter to the Prime Minister of India and others on a similar set of issues. The letter pointed out that differences in religion, language, caste or culture have never mattered to the cohesion of the Armed Forces. The letter condemned the targeting of Muslims and Dalits, the clampdown on free speech and attacks on civil society groups, universities, journalists and scholars. Making it clear that they did not hold any affiliation with any particular political party, the Veterans urged the authorities to urgently act to uphold the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

A few aspects of the earlier Conclave on the relevance of Gandhi deserve to be highlighted. In his wide-ranging reflections on the threats to democratic rights and freedoms that people are facing today, Justice (Retd) A P Shah pointed out that these are rights that the people of India have bestowed on themselves through the Constitution—they are not favours granted by government. Justice Shah underlined that there was a systematic attack or institutions including the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the media resulting in a dangerous polarisation and the growth of a violent, narrow majoritarian vision of nationalism. He called for strong resistance to the move to "stifle dissent by stifling dissenters".

The writer Mrinal Pande underlined the importance of the need to speak and write in a language that ordinary people understand. Historian Ram-chandra Guha shared his views on Gandhiji's "four pillars of Swaraj''—non-violence, abolition of untouchability, economic self-reliance and Hindu-Muslim harmony—in the 70 years of India's life as a free country. He felt that the greatest threat to democracy was the systematic promotion of hatred and violence against the minorities especially Muslims. Describing the current regime as "the most anti-intellectual government in our history", he felt that attacks against historians, scholars and, scientists were part of the attempt to re-fashion India as a Hindu nation.

If there is a thread that runs consistently through the concerns expressed by Veterans of the Armed Forces and the retired civil servants through their Open Letters and Conclaves, it has to do with the protection, preservation and propagation of the values and spirit of the Indian Constitution—whether in relation to secularism or with regard to the majoritarianism that threatens minorities to the safeguarding of the independence of democratic and statutory institutions and to the fulfilment of the rights that the poor and the marginalised are entitled to.

Vol. 50, No.34, Feb 25 - Mar 03, 2018