The choice of President Francois Hollande as the chief guest for India’s Republic Day celebration is an interesting one. India invites a head of government every year to witness the grand spectacle of military prowess and cultural diversity of the country, but the visit is also about bilateral talks.
This year both countries have much to discuss. Paris is still hurting over the terrorist attacks in November and in India, the audacious attack in Pathankot, though not on the same scale, is very recent. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took President Hollande on a tour of Chandigarh, designed by the great Frenchman Le Corbuisier — who was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru — and France will help in making it into a smart city. And of course there is the Rafale deal, with both sides trying to speed up the purchase of 36 jets and which the French will like very much.
But while they consider the modernism of the great architect and later watch the march pasts on Rajpath on Tuesday, they could also consider chatting about something that would be most appropriate for the occasion—the idea of Republicanism. France of course has more experience on the subject, having embraced the idea over 200 years ago. For the French, it is an article of faith, the bedrock of the existence of the modern state. They scorn the multicultural model of their European cousins across the channel and claim not to have any time for identity politics or tokenism of any kind, whether based on grounds of ethnicity, religion or colour.
Yet, this foundational principle is now under tremendous stress. After having tucked away its warts and pretended it had no problem with its minorities, France has suddenly woken up to a very ugly reality and discovered it may have an enemy within. Hollande’s tough response to the Paris attacks was to go and bomb IS targets in Syria, but he also immediately declared an emergency; at the same time French society is asking itself if the Muslims — mostly from different corners of the French empire — are one of them.
The Indian Republic is just over six decades old and receives short shrift from everyone. There is no dearth of self-congratulation over our robust democracy, usually seen in terms of the familiar markers — the institutions, the freedoms and the elections — but the idea of republicanism is relatively less considered in public debate. To most of us, Republic Day is less about affirming the values of the republic — the fundamental contract of the citizen with the state — and more about the spectacle and the pomp. Television and radio play patriotic songs and everyone gets a holiday, but do we really consider what the day means?
This is an urgent question in these troubled times. We are seeing attempts to appropriate Babasaheb Ambedkar into the wider pantheon of Sangh parivar heroes, an ever increasing list which largely includes those who were in some real or perceived way in opposition to Nehru. That they have a large number of followers whose vote can come in handy also helps.
At the same time, the Sangh’s own arms are at war with Dalits. The fight in Hyderabad University between the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the BJP and the Ambedkar Students Association was not over campus politics. The ABVP, unable to swallow the ASA’s protest over the hanging of Yakub Memon immediately flung the one charge that is thrown at any dissenter—they called them “anti-national.” Their complaint that “casteist” activities were going on in the university swiftly went up all the way up to the Union HRD minister who followed it up with remarkable alacrity and enthusiasm. Now, after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the HRD Minister declares that caste has nothing to do with the issue.
How would Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution which gave us the day that is being celebrated on January 26, have reacted to these developments?He took his followers out of the Hindu fold and led mass conversions to Buddhism. On their part, the upper-caste-dominated Sangh parivar has never felt comfortable with Dalits. He would have certainly disdained any attempt to woo the Dalit vote while retaining an antipathy towards them.
The republic that Ambedkar and his colleagues envisaged was about the rights of the citizen. And such is its beauty that despite all the attacks on it, it has held true and fast, giving comfort to each and everyone of us. But who will deny that at the same time, our republic too has failed to meet its commitment of equality? Can the weakest — the poor, the dalits, the religious minorities, women — really feel optimistic about getting justice? Are we truly a republican state?
Despite all the problems, France cannot afford to give up on its republican principles and despite the occasional fantasies of many, altering the Indian Constitution to purge it of its inclusive impulse is not the answer. The Republic is an idea that, despite its flaws, is rooted in the ethos of both countries, even if in different ways. This idea needs renewal. Even if Hollande and Modi aren’t able to figure out how, the Republic’s real strength is that it belongs to all citizens equally and they will find a way.