The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by the Constitution, which believes that dissent is an essential part of a vibrant democracy.
The Republic Day is a time to take stock of our nation, to assess its democratic credentials, and to evaluate whether we have stood up to the expectations of our founding fathers who fought the freedom movement and gave us one of the most comprehensive and foresighted Constitutions.
This Republic Day has dawned in the midst of a nationwide agitation against the CAA-NPR-NRC combine. The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by the Constitution, which believes that dissent is an essential part of a vibrant democracy. Such protests are meant to convey to the government of the day that there are issues on which people have misgivings. A sensitive government, on its part, takes on board this discontent and seeks to find solutions that address it.
However, it is surprising that Amit Shah, the all-knowing and all-powerful home minister of the country, has said that he cares nothing for the ongoing protests, and that the divisive CAA will be implemented come what may. The statement displays a degree of hubris and arrogance that is truly astonishing. Democratic governments cannot say that they will not listen to the voice of the people or assert that the views of the people do not matter. Dismissive statements of this nature point to an authoritarian streak that is particularly unfortunate as the world’s largest democracy celebrates its Republic Day.
Besides, this display of undemocratic authoritarianism has little, legally, to justify it. The argument that because the CAA is a law legitimately passed by Parliament, and that, therefore, no one has the right to question it, carries little merit. For example, the infamous Emergency imposed by then PM Indira Gandhi in 1975 was also done legally. An article of the Constitution was invoked to promulgate it, and it had received, as per prescribed procedure, the sanction of the President of India. Did that mean that, since it was a legal step taken in accordance with the Constitution, the people of India could not protest against it, or even worse, that the government of the day could ignore or dismiss the nationwide and deep resentment it generated?
In fact, the Jan Sangh — the BJP’s earlier avatar — and the RSS were in the forefront in fighting the Emergency, even when, from a techo-legal angle, it was a valid law. If that could be the position of the current dispensation, then why should it be so dismissive now of democratic protest against the CAA? The truth is that Amit Shah and PM Narendra Modi best exemplify a verifiable tendency in the ruling dispensation to intolerantly dismiss anyone who does not endorse what they are doing. Only such an attitude can explain Mr Shah’s statement, and the manner in which the government has sided completely with the law enforcing authorities — and their excesses — with no empathy whatsoever for the lakhs of students protesting the CAA. Young India is sending an emphatic message that the attempt to divide and rule on the basis of religion is no longer acceptable. They are asking the government to focus on real governance priorities, such as the disastrous state of the economy and the lack of jobs, and give up this divisive attempt to create endemic social turmoil and subvert the social harmony and peace of the nation.
This Republic Day there is also a challenge to the federal nature of the Constitution, which the nation will need to resolve in a sane and enlightened way. The government claims that since the CAA is a law validly passed by Parliament, the states have no option but to implement it. Many states have, however, said that they will not implement the CAA, and its mandatory accessories — as reiterated by the government itself on multiple occasions — the NPR and the NRC. Wherein lies the solution? The present situation presents a challenge to Centre-state relations of an unprecedented nature. The Centre has its rights. But so do the states. In their own territory, they are largely sovereign, and represent the will of the people. The Centre may have the law, but it needs the states to implement it. There is an interdependence in the situation that cannot be resolved by force, or by resort to authoritarian means that abuse the spirit of the Constitution. Statesmanship is required here through a mature, consultative process where there is dialogue, give and take, and a willingness to be accommodative. However, it is a moot point whether the current government can provide this statesmanship.
This Republic Day must also reinforce our commitment to preserve and strengthen secularism. The word secularism is not liked by some people anymore, but no sane person, in his own self-interest, can be against the principle of respect for all faiths. India is a plural and composite nation where different faiths have lived for centuries together. Any attempt to subvert this basic fabric of our nation will create social discord and turbulence, and create unwarranted insecurity in the lives of ordinary citizens, thus deflecting attention from far more important governance priorities. This secular harmony is the calling card of India to the world. It is guaranteed by our Constitution, whose adoption we celebrate today. There is little point in celebrating Republic Day if our actions militate against the pivotal vision of our founding fathers and the drafters of our Constitution, of a vibrant India, at peace within itself, where all its people, irrespective of their faiths, can live with dignity, respect and security.