A conflict has been playing out in our campuses and our public spaces over the past weeks. Even as we wonder what it is about, it is important to recognise what this conflict is not about. It is not about national security; it is an insult to our armed forces, paramilitary and law enforcement agencies to suggest that a handful of students, irrespective of what and how stridently they shout, pose a threat to our nation. The conflict is not about patriotism, for the measure of patriotism is not in the words we speak but in the commitment to the constitution reflected in our acts.
The real issue here is the defence of the space for questioning in our public discourse and more importantly in the minds of the citizens – we the people. The act of questioning is central to the conception of freedom bequeathed to us by the struggle that birthed our country’s independence. It is our country’s journey to Swaraj that is threatened when we allow questioning to be delegitimised in the law of the land and in the minds of our people.
India’s struggle for independence was remarkable because it was a struggle that was not just against the enemy without but also the one within. The goal, swaraj, was not something to be granted by or snatched from someone on the outside. It was Sw-Raj or the complete conquest of the self – a destination to be reached by ceaselessly questioning and eventually shedding the shackles of the mind. The primary ‘weapon’ of the struggle was satyagraha.
A satyagrahi is required to question the source of his fear and recognise that to exact subservience from him is impossible unless he acquiesces to it. A satyagrahi must then question the tyranny of the status quo and resolutely confront it until he is finally free; but to do this he must first learn to question his own hatred and recognise the humanity of his oppressor. This was the process in Champaran, Kheda, Dandi and all the great movements of our freedom struggle. And when, as in Chauri Chaura, the satyagrahis wavered from questioning themselves and turned instead to acting out their hate, the movement was stopped because it would have led them to subservience, not freedom.
Let alone expect unquestioning obeisance, satyagraha expressly forbids it. It requires questioning at every step to overcome fear, prejudices and anger until one is free in the truest sense of the word. In this struggle for emancipation, the nation is one’s karma-bhoomi because this is where we the people have the greatest space to act – it is our space; it is the object of our affection. The nation too nurtures and embraces us – what it does not do is encircle us or jealously circumscribe our act of questioning to prevent us from taking the right step forward. It in fact sets us free so that we may work for ‘Jai Jagat’ — the peaceful rise of all humanity.
Our constitution was designed to build a nation that allows every one of us to pursue our personal Satyagraha and reach this conception of freedom. It recognises that forces such as caste prejudices, communal hatred, gender inequity and economic disparities would impinge upon the space of India’s weakest and strives to guarantee the dignity, security and opportunities needed by every Indian to ask the questions that can set her or him free.
The constitution visualises our collective journey towards ‘justice, social, economic and political’ not as the regimented march of an authoritarian but as a living conversation of a billion people, each striving to be empowered, as the preamble states, with ‘liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship’. It this unfettered questioning by a billion Indians that will eventually consummate the constitutional revolution of peaceful redistribution of power. It is this act of questioning that Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya were engaged in when the State swooped down on them. They were engaged in a conversation that is India when their voices were stifled.
Questioning challenges the existing idea of India, forcing those in power to accommodate the perspective of the person asking the question. It thus makes a single static narrative of India plain impossible. This poses a serious problem for those who need India to be defined in a specific and regimented way. Some questions also offend the sensibilities of a sizeable or influential section of people. This creates a political opportunity for the bastions of power that feel threatened by questioning Indians. So they deify the nation with their narrow definitions of security, nationalism and patriotism and thereby attack the very legitimacy of the act of questioning.
Deification converts the nation from an ongoing project of human endeavour to an object of ‘divine’ provenance acting through a priesthood. Rather than being a collective enterprise and conversations of a billion people, the nation becomes a distant deity who demands not citizens but devotees. The priesthood decides what the deity represents — what is sacred and what is profane. The State moves from being an enabler of voices to an enforcer of obeisance. Conformism and obedience become hallmarks of good citizenship.
The tenor of the times change from being about curiosity, awareness, engagement, and inclusion to fear, insecurity, self-preservation and exclusion. To question becomes the greatest act of blasphemy, and those who engage in it are ‘clueless’, ‘they do not get it’, ‘trouble makers’, ‘threats to progress’ and ‘a threat to the nation’. When these mantras are repeated again and again from the pulpit of authority, many in society begin to view questioning as a perverse, morally flawed act not indulged in by those who really love the nation.
Those like the students on campus who have experienced the fresh air of freedom, rebel when the space for questioning is obliterated. But for those who are yet to find their place in the conversation of a billion Indians, closing their minds to questioning extinguishes the flame of freedom even before it can be lit.
Deification thus kills the most potent instrument for personal liberation and nation building bequeathed to us by our constitution. It brings back the very shackles that satyagraha seeks to free us from. It is important to keep in mind that it is not just the individual who gets shackled; it is also the idea of the nation that gets hollowed and weakened precisely at a time when there are real challenges awaiting it. India’s challenge at this juncture is to preserve the constitutional institutions needed to continue the collective journey towards Swaraj.
The young students facing the brunt of the state’s fury are actually fighting on behalf of all of us. They deserve our unstinting support. To those who so fear questioning, we can only appeal that you shed your fears and join us –- you have nothing to lose but your chains.