When thinking of what my subject for the Justice V.M. Tarkunde Memorial Lecture should be, I saw that it would have to do with our collective svabhava, with how civil society and the state fare today, in themselves and in their relationship with each other.
There is a deep dichotomy, a fundamental two-ness in the Indian psyche which can be seen as an ‘India versus India’ phenomenon. We are as a people steeped in the fatalistic acceptance of anything that happens around us as ‘given by kismet, ordained by karma, etched on our foreheads as the lines of fate. And so, acceptance, resignation, detachment are seen as philosophically desirable, spiritually advised and pragmatically sensible. On the other hand, India has also been the site of great reforms, of revolutionary changes, campaigns, agitations, movements for change all of which are about anything but quietist, accepting. They militate against ‘kismet’. Fatalist acceptance of the given on the one hand contrasts with the anti-fatalist urge for change. So we have two Indian mindsets at the very taproot of our civilisation. And our present preoccupation with the famine of currency makes me wonder whether we are to admire the great patience being shown by our people or lament the lack of protest among them.
‘India versus India’ sounds like a litigious title. Do I mean by it that despite the money and the strain involved in litigation, despite all the time it takes up, legal action is a favourite Indian habit, amounting to an addiction? That we, as a people, delight in taking one another, especially relatives, to court or that the Indian state rather routinely fills its already over-crowded jails with more and ever more under-trials, many if not most of them innocent? In truth I believe that to be quite true. Next to temples, mosques, gurudwaras, the most favoured place of recourse is the nyayalay.
If the awam seems to be an adept in litigation, the state is on board as well, keeping hundreds of thousands of lawyers in silk, keeping attorneys general, advocates general, solicitors general, their additionals, alternatives and a platoon of public prosecutors and standing counsel ceaselessly, sleeplessly and thanklessly occupied. Together they keep notaries public ready with ink-pad and stamp paper, clerks in the kindergarten of the law but post-doctorates in the legal system, tippety-tappetyiing away on their Remington or Olivetti typewriters, rolling out vakalats, affidavits, counters, anticipatory bail applications.
But our laws, our courts, judges and lawyers are not about litigation alone. They have led to decisive, courageous interventions. They have nursed foresight, gestated evolution, protected the intelligence that conserves and the wisdom that reforms. Husnara Khatoon v/s the State of Bihar gives an example. India has been notoriously sluggish in the matter of prison reforms, on the condition of prisoners. Kapila Hingorani’s petition on behalf of several prisoners won for 40,000 of them release. India versus India stood in Husnara in the shape of a thirst for insaf versus a fatalistic surrender to kismet. Our laws and our law courts have judged issues on the claims of two faculties which make humans of the homo sapien – IQ and MQ – the intelligence quotient and the moral quotient, better known as the human conscience. With a bandaged arm, elbow in sling, wrist in a compress of crepe, the bruised yet trusting Indian salutes India’s pre-eminent site where IQ meets MQ – the judiciary.
Every society through each generation knows men and women of high IQs and also men and women of high MQs and, very significantly, men and women, with both high IQs and high MQs, showing thereby that if it feels great to be smart it also feels good to have a sense of right and wrong. Such persons are few in number, but they are there. Among them some, even fewer, add courage to their conviction. They express their views without hesitation. No agar-magar stops them.
Individuals need conscience keepers because their consciences frequently doze off. Nations need conscience keepers because their consciences only occasionally wake up.
Jayaprakash Narayan was one exceptional conscience keeper to our beloved India – a country at once wise and foolish, loving and murderous, offering shelter, sanctuary, sharanam, ashraya but also distancing, abandoning, expelling, a country at once varied and yet bonding, so united and so hopelessly divided. JP had humour aplenty in him to laugh at that but he was essentially the most earnest man I have ever met. He knew how India could be at war with a part of itself. He said to Kashmiris – these are not his exact words, but a paraphrasing of what he said – ‘Countries, people, behave in strange ways. You know Pakistan and what it did to you in 1947-48. You know India and what it did for you in 1947-48. You and I can be proud of the Indian officers and jawans who laid down their lives here, staving the invaders off. Later, things have happened between India and you that should not have happened. I am ashamed of those. I know you mistrust India. I can understand why. India sees Kashmir as part of its map, whereas it should have seen India as part of Kashmir’s mind. Your shikaras, your bokharas, your walnuts, your carpets, your summer breeze, your winter snows have gone into India’s consciousness. But India’s great constitution, its independent judiciary, its free media, its resurgent womanhood, has not entered your minds. This is not your fault, it is India’s. The way Sheikhsahib was treated, the way your elections turned into farces, hurt your izzat, your Kashmiriyat, is all shameful. But, please do recognise the fact that India is a republic, whose conscience though often asleep, even comatose, can be and is awakened. If shown its error, India can correct its methods. I will do my best to help it do so. Trust India, trust me. Do not, and I repeat, do not go with some delusive dreams which could become the most horrible nightmares’.
This was India versus India trying the non-litigious road of mediation.
And at another end of the country he told the diverse Naga people, similarly, something like (again not his exact words but certainly his message): ‘You are a proud, self-respecting people with a distinct culture and history. India, its hinterland particularly, is so wrapped up in its own sense of glory and greatness, real and imaginary, that it does not have the time or the temperament to appreciate your heritage enough. Just as it has branded all south Indians as Madrasi, it has branded all of you as Naga. It does not even know that the Naga are many people, at least 17 distinct people, with distinct cultures, language, dress. Most Indians think of you in terms of red and black shawls, spears and republic day parades. That is India’s loss, not yours. India can be mulishly adamant but somewhere it knows how to correct itself, rectify its errors. India can go wrong, India cannot be evil. Trust it, not those further to your north or east, who tell you to look in their direction. That way lies a steep fall into an unknown valley’.
This was again India mediating India.
Kashmir, Nagaland trusted him. The south of India, too, curiously, bonded with him. He was, after all a socialist. The south never saw him in terms of a Hindiwala, who without knowing the next thing about, say, Tamil, still insists on their speaking to him in his language, a typical India versus India signpost.
And yet what did the state do to the same JP when he raised his voice against corruption, against dictatorship? Vinashakale viparita buddhi, JP said softly as he was led to the van taking him to prison, in 1975. What the state did was shameful but what civil society did was worse. In utter cowardice it watched in silence and then went about its business. In Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s immortal words, persons of conscience are inconvenient and unwelcome to the state and to society. They suffer at the hands of both the king and his loyal subjects.
Hakim-e-shahar bhi, majma ‘e-am bhi
Tir-e-ilzam bhi, sang-e-dushnam bhi
(The governor and the populace, both, send
Calumny’s keen arrow, insult’s hurtling stone)
Such rare people, so rare as to be countable on the fingers of one hand, personify more than the word ‘conscience’. Their restless conscience stands four square against its envious opponent, calm cunning, its clever rival, conformism.
When their comments are addressed to or are about seats of power, they suffer victimisation, persecution, and worse. Even fewer have the greater courage – temerity, almost – to speak their minds not just to the sovereign but to society, to their own samaj. If the sovereign can be vengeful, society can be vicious. If the state can prosecute, society can victimise. Its weapons are ridicule, calumny, spite. Those who speak up against an unjust state are brave ; those who speak up against an unkind people are braver.
Tagore’s famous poem ‘Where the mind is without fear’, when read or recited in the original Bangla, has a resonance that goes beyond its great ring in the English translation:
Chitta jetha bhoy-shunno…(Where the mind is without fear)…uchcho jetha shir…( and the head is held high…).
The Indian mind is not bhoy-shunno; it is bhoy-purno today. A Kashmiri Pandit in the Valley, in his own home, knows bhoy, a Kashmiri Muslim in Jammu is in khauf, a Naga in Manipur, a Manipuri in Manipur itself, is in fear. And when the Cauvery fever climbs, Kannadigas in Chennai and Tamilians in Bengaluru are in fear, real fear. Karnataka number plates vanish from Chennai roads, TN plates from Karnataka. Dalits in Bihar have been in bhoy of organisations like the Ranvir Sena, since they can remember. Senas are a factor in Indian life, political, social, cultural. What music one may hear, who may or may not act in films are all subjects of Senaic preoccupation in Mumbai and in Mangalore.
Being in a minority in India is not an ethnic condition as much as it is a circumstantial state. You can be in a majority one moment, in a minority the next – you can be in a majority in the bus terminus, in a minority in the bus. You can be an Indian while boarding a train, and can become a Hindu or a Muslim on the journey in one moment if your phone or your radio gives a certain type of news during the journey. You carry your minorityism in you, you carry your bhoy in you. A divisive India, a suspicious India, a fearful India is in potentiality always, and in reality often, pitted against a diverse India, the India that trusts, helps, supports. There, India becomes its own adversary, India versus India. Acharya Kripalani said famously once and I quote from memory: ‘Gandhi ne ek badi ghalati kari. Usne hamein sikhaya ki bairiyon se kaise dosti karein. Usne yah nahin sikhaya ki apnon se kaise dosti karein’… (He taught us how to make friends with others but not with our own)…
If the swagger of dharmagurus in Hindu India more than meets its match anywhere, it is in the disproportionate hold of Islamic clerics in the life of the Muslim population. The grip of religious leaders on the thoughts and fears, suspicions and frictions of ordinary Indian of all denominations is increasing and threatens to widen divides and deepen obscurantism, superstition, bigotry and patriarchy.
The illiberal majority’s minority baiting must not be matched by illiberal minority silence or inaction in areas where reform is due, like divorce and maintenance. Homogenising diversity is not a step in equality; it is a design in domination. Equally, keeping much-needed reform out is not a step in minority self-protection; it is a sign of regressive self-isolation. Freedom and evolution go together. India is versus India when one Indian community bullies another Indian community into conformity or submission. India is versus India when one Indian community bullies its own constituents into conformity or submission.
(Edited excerpts from the Tenth Justice V.M. Tarkunde Memorial Lecture delivered by Gopalkrishna Gandhi in New Delhi on November 20, 2016, reproduced here with the permission of the Tarkunde Foundation)