India's Liberal and Democratic Voices Must Get Ready for Another Battle

The latest anniversary of ‘December 6,’ made particularly depressing by the Ayodhya verdict, is upon us. Yet, the central task before the democratic politics has never been clearer.

Before Ranjan Gogoi there was Jagdish Sharan Verma. We may have a very good reason  to quibble vehemently with Justice Gogoi and his  Ayodhya verdict for having provided judicial aid and comfort to the practitioners of a certain kind of  vicious  majoritarianism; but, let it be recalled that on this count  Justice Verma was the original sinner.

It was Justice Verma’s “Hindutva” judgment of December 1995, just three years after the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, that gave some respectability to the arguments behind the “this land belongs to the Hindus” politics.

The Verma judgment simply legitimised the electoral politics of  Hindu mobilisation. One contemporary commentator, A.G. Noorani, had noted matter-of-factly: “In one fell blow, the wall of separation which the founding fathers built so laboriously to keep religion and politics apart is destroyed. Elections can be fought to make India a theocratic state.”

Those were genuine fears, clearly spelled out, but India did not become a theocratic state. What redeemed a dark possibility was that politics was so conducted – often patchily, no doubt – as to contain the consequences of a profound judicial folly. For years, the Hindutva forces were kept at bay; even during the Vajpayee era, when the BJP ruled at the Centre, the Hindutva camp was never allowed to feel dominant or triumphant. Of course, the follies and stupidities of the ‘secular’ parties and politicians allowed the Hindutva forces to establish a beach-head, but not before 2014.

It is equally relevant to remember that towards the end of his life Justice Verma reportedly came to rue his judgment; it was obvious to him – as it was to anyone blessed with an iota of political sense – that the Hindutva forces had mischievously run away with the Verma ball.

There is no way for a retired judge to do any kind of penance for his judicial sins. Justice Verma died a troubled judge. Will Justice Gogoi – and, more importantly, his remaining four brother judges – come to regret the Ayodhya verdict? Will it be possible for the apex court to recover its judicial conscience?

In a way, we had had a foretaste of the emerging judicial inclination of the Gogoi court – some kind of “let there be peace” jurisprudence – being scripted.

In October this year, the court had given in to the pressure of political protest in the matter of the demolition (by the DDA) of a Ravidas temple in Tughlaqabad, and found itself constrained to order re-construction of a temple at the same spot. Justice Arun Kumar Mishra had formulated the “let there be peace” principle for reversing itself. On the face of it, the judgment appeared anchored in some kind of a political calculus, rather than in axioms of judicial consistency. The sentiment – “a lasting sense of peace and tranquillity” – found an echo in the Ayodhya verdict. If this is going to be the preferred impulse of the apex court, then we are inviting dark forces to the party.

Whether or not Justice Gogoi comes to regret his judgment and perform any kind of penance, it has become incumbent upon liberal and democratic opinion to see to it that the Ayodhya verdict does not degrade into a constitutional ugliness. In particular, the relentless invocation of constitutional provisions and commitments is necessary to ensure that the contents of “peace” are not dictated by the Nagpur bosses.

Variably we all subscribe to a charming hypocrisy that judges are impervious to the political fortunes of the ruling party of the day because they are zealously mindful of their institutional autonomy. It is a serviceable piety. But that is all. It can arguably be suggested, for instance, that the former home minister, P. Chidambaram would still be languishing in jail had the ruling establishment not sullied its moral book so spectacularly in the Mumbai power-grab.

Whatever inferences the judiciary and other institutions may or may not draw from the constitutional sordidness of that failed power grab, the only recourse open to the liberal community is to demand of the so-called secular parties a different kind of politics. Republican virtues and constitutional values cannot, in the long run, by protected by dubious practitioners of dubious politics, even if sanctified by the claim to ‘secularism’.

Thanks to inspired partisanship pursued these past five years from the very top, our society and polity are deeply divided. Post-Maharashtra, a new centrist coalition is possible. And, the most essential prerequisite for such a convergence will be a blunt clarity on an essential point: whatever the compulsions of electoral politics, secularism in practice means respecting majority sentiment without making the minorities feel threatened or neglected or alienated. An obvious but elusive business.

A Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition has opened up possibilities beyond Maharashtra. The ‘secular’ parties have a historic opportunity to help a new Shiv Sena leadership move beyond the frozen animosities of the 1990s. In particular, the habitually pricey Congress has to demonstrate that it has cured itself of its big brother arrogance and bogus pretensions and can in fact work with new partners in different regions.

Post the Maharastra realignment, it is possible to induce a Nitish Kumar or a Naveen Patnaik to join hands in defeating the ill-intended changes in the citizenship laws. These regional satraps can be made to understand that the ruling party is testing how far it can go in tinkering with a fundamental constitutional proposition. The country cannot reward a politics that endlessly squanders its energies and imagination in chasing out invented enemies.

Maharashtra has already punctured the new Chanakayas’ aura of invincibility. The ruling establishment’s ingrained limits are catching up with it and it is bound to flirt with anti-democratic devices and designs. Robust but reasoned opposition voices need to be raised, thereby enabling the judiciary and other institutions of restraint to slow down a wilfully arrogant regime.

This December 6, India’s liberal and democratic voices should demand that the ‘secular’ parties and politicians clean up their act. We have come to terms with distortions and duplicities among secular political leaders. That must change before the Hindutva onslaught can be rolled back. Public purpose has to be restored at the centre of political life.

Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He was, until recently, editor-in-chief of The Tribune.