Listen to this article:
As part of PAIGAM, a grassroots media advocacy and research network of scholars and activists, we recently got an opportunity to meet the former vice president of India, Hamid Ansari. Our meeting was facilitated by the diaspora-based advocacy organisation, Hindus for Human Rights, to mark India’s 73rd Republic Day.
Ansari graciously agreed to record a video message for us, which is now all over the news in India because leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party have decided to target him for raising concerns over growing threats to the most important document in India – the Indian Constitution. A section of the media has also launched a vicious attack on him.
For those who may not have seen and heard his brief message, here is a verbatim transcript:
Today is Republic Day.
Now as everyone knows, India gained its freedom from British rule on the 15th of August 1947. And then the people of India gave themselves a constitution on the 26th of January . So the significance of the day, Republic Day, is the day when the constitution was formally inaugurated.
The [constitution] prescribes universal adult franchise and includes a comprehensive charter of rights and duties including the duty to protect the heritage of our composite culture and to promote the spirit of fraternity. This has nurtured and sustained the Indian democracy for seven decades and through seventeen general elections.
We have today… We are reckoned to be the largest democracy in the world and we are proud to be so. Ours is a vast land and diverse land peopled by citizens of different backgrounds, speaking different languages and professing different beliefs. Almost 20 percent of our people belong to religious minorities.
In recent years, we have experienced emergence of trends and practices that dispute the well established principle of civic nationalism, and interpose a new and imaginary practice of cultural nationalism. It seeks to present an electoral majority in the guise of a religious majority and monopolise political power. It wants to distinguish citizens on the basis of their faith, give vent to intolerance, insinuate otherness and promote disquiet and insecurity. Some of its recent manifestations are chilling, and reflect poorly on our claim to be governed by rule of law.
Why have segments of opinion in a plural society with a long tradition of accommodation of diversity, decided to question it in favour of a unilateral and distorted reading of its past? That’s a question that has to be answered. These trends need to be contested, and contested legally and contested politically. Thank you.
While we found the former VP’s remarks moving, accurate and forward looking, we were completely bowled over by the warmth and openness with which he welcomed us to sit and chat over tea after we recorded his video.
We had hoped to learn something from the statesman and former diplomat but what we found instead was a person of great curiosity who wanted to learn from us.
His patience, ability to listen, absorb and reflect was infectious—at no point during the conversation did he ever attempt to impose his knowledge and views on us.
There were many fascinating aspects to that memorable interaction that struck us.
One was a very powerful and symbolic message that “there is no resting”. At the age of 85, when even the most esteemed officials retire from national life, this statesman—well dressed and punctually stationed in his office with a huge pile of reading material on his desk—displayed an amazing eagerness to search for answers about the direction and path that India is taking.
It is now clear to us that earnest and constant commitment towards nation-building comes not from position, power and office, but is as a result of a sheer “spirit”, belief in, and love for one’s country and compatriots.
After patiently and carefully listening to points of view for about 45 minutes, he interjected:
“But isn’t this hate only at the level of talk and TV screens? Aren’t people destined to stay together on the ground? Can they really afford to hate and get hated when its about everyday affairs – what if the vendor, electrician or your doctor is a Muslim, can people really afford to say no to their services?
“Dr. Ambedkar gave the best formula of fraternity. Is there any escaping that when it comes to the everyday lived experiences of people?” He added.
Ansari is concerned about the division and communal tensions we are seeing in the country, but he believes that the fraternity among people will surely come to the defence of the inclusive spirit of India. He is greatly encouraged by the farmers protest and the Muslim women who led the anti-CAA-NRC protests.
This brought us to another unmistakable quality of his: his undeterred hope and faith in people, in democracy. Ansari revealed an optimism that we, as younger Indian citizens, have really been missing in the public discourse on India. He reminded us that a true patriot places their trust in the people that make up a nation, and sees the people as the life and breath of our constitution.
As he came outside to see us off, that spark in his eyes stayed with us. “We don’t feel the same way when we usually meet politicians, do we?” – we exclaimed to each other.
This republic day, we returned with the gift of optimism from Hamid Ansari, and a renewed inspiration to be active stakeholders in this collective and dynamic process of nation-building – in favour of its people.
Akriti Bhatia teaches Sociology at Miranda House, Delhi University and is the Founder, PAIGAM (People’s Association in Grassroot Action and Movements).
Deepak Indolia is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University.