A matter of origin — nationalism or racism?

Written by Dilip Simeon | Published on: June 1, 1999
The recent manifestation of the right–wing onslaught on citizenship has taken the form of an attack on Sonia Gandhi for being Italian. This contention, supported even by senior Congress ranks, constitutes outright racism.

Aremarkable feature of the political values of south Asian elites has been their contempt for the legal and
ethical underpinnings of the institutions of governance. They have been able to combine this with skilful public relations, but the consequences are difficult to hide. Sri Lanka is in the throes of civil war, Pakistan broke up in 1971 and is gripped by a prolonged political and financial crisis, Bangladesh continues to suffer from economic disparities, political flux and environmental disasters. A close examination of each situation will reveal an incapacity or unwillingness on the part of the privileged classes of the post–colonial period to adhere to democratic proprieties such as respect for the rule of law, the freedom of speech and association, the tolerance of dissent. Thanks to the Gandhian legacy of non–violence, and the grass–roots mass organisation of the Congress, India was able to stave off this degeneration for a little longer than its neighbours.

Over the past two decades however, it has become clear that sections of the Indian middle classes, bureaucracy and political leadership, have thrown scruple to the winds in the mad scramble to accumulate power, money and patronage. The criminalisation of politics, the shameless misuse of public office for personal or partisan gain, the incompetence of ministers, the manipulation of legal processes, caste and communal biases in administration — all these phenomena have contributed to the decline in public standards. The social groups responsible for this denounce "endemic corruption" — by which they mean financial embezzlement. But they ignore and even contribute to the dismantling of India’s democratic institutions by the politics of communal hatred. (The Congress contributed to this by making concessions to communalists in the Shah Bano case and over Babri Masjid, by allowing some of its leaders to get away with murder in the aftermath of the 1984 massacre and by presiding over the Bombay riots of 1993). This politics undermines the principle of equality of all citizens before the law, by suggesting that some citizens are more "Indian", more patriotic than others, by virtue of their identity. By justifying violence against communally defined "enemies of the Nation", it upholds that most iniquitous of Brahmanical values — the notion that crime and punishment be graded according to the status of the wrong–doer, rather than the nature of the crime. It attempts to spread bias and prejudice in the judiciary and dereliction of duty in the bureaucracy.

Most of all, it seeks to undermine the most basic of these institutions, viz, that of citizenship, without which the idea of democracy becomes meaningless. Certain constitutions pretend to be democratic, but their application of provisions which discriminate between persons on grounds of race (as in South Africa under apartheid), or community (as in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan), negates the very spirit of democracy namely, human equality. It needs to be stated quite plainly that communal politics is akin to apartheid in this respect, and with the latest outcry against the "foreign" origins of Sonia Gandhi, the communalists have come even closer to it. There is no such thing as "reverse racism". Racism is discrimination based on ethnicity and race, whatever be the origin, skin colour and ethnic identity of the person or group being discriminated against. If there is one thing in common between apartheid, communalism, fascism and racism, it is the practice and culture of authoritarianism, in the realm both of party and state. The Congress leadership ought to seriously reflect on the decline of democratic values in its organisational functioning and among its rank and file. It also ought to make amends for its failure to implement the law of the land when the communalists were defying section 153 IPC in the matter of instigating communal hatred, for protecting the likes of H.K.L. Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar, and for allowing Salman Khurshid to dabble in the politics of Jamia Millia Islamia when a section of students were targeting Professor Mushirul Hasan on the Rushdie issue.

Despite its appeasement of communal forces however, (a charge which could be laid at the leftists’ door as well), the Congress retains a popular mass organisation and a constitution committed to secularism and democracy. It also has a nation–wide structure, unlike most of the opponents of the BJP/RSS. For this reason, it is seen by the latter as their most potent enemy. For their part, the current rulers of India have demonstrated their complete disrespect for legal and constitutional proprieties in their short spell of power. The Supreme Court’s annulment of Thackeray’s voting rights has yet to be implemented. The Masjid demolition case has been stalled by the Home Ministry headed by a chief accused — a clear case of conflict of interest, which ought to have made the BJP desist from appointing Advani to the post. After the vandalisation of the BCCI office in Mumbai, chief minister Joshi publicly announced that there was no need for prosecution, since "everything is all right". The murder of a leprosy doctor by a man known to be close to the Bajrang Dal prompted the Home Minister of India to give that organisation a certificate of good conduct before any investigations had been carried out. A big song and dance is being raised by the RSS about "conversions", despite the fact that the Constitution gives all citizens the right to practice a religion of their choice. It is evident that the extreme right wing end of the political spectrum believes most fervently in the doctrine of the end justifying the means. They think nothing of instigating the cruelest of human passions, regardless of the impact this will have on the polity. When they are out of power, they mobilise themselves to conduct violent communal out–breaks, destroy mosques, etc. In power, they enable their front organisations to run amuck, as has happened in Gujarat, UP and Orissa, and gain control over the education system, the police and paramilitary. (Something stated years ago by the Home ministry under Sardar Patel, which banned the RSS on February 4, 1948, for contributing to the climate of violence which took Mahatma Gandhi’s life).

The most recent manifestation of the right–wing onslaught on citizenship has been the attack on Sonia Gandhi for being Italian. Questions are being aired about the rights of similarly placed persons in Italy or the USA, questions which are pathetic in their whining ascription of all virtue to "the West". Rather than be proud of the fact that the Indian Constitution is more consistently democratic than the constitutions of Italy and the USA, our dollar–worshipping middle classes want our system to take a step backwards. They make a racket out of their much vaunted commitment to "tradition", but tradition has it that a bahu takes on the identity of her husband. They make high–sounding noises about the national interest, conveniently forgetting that the national interest requires that the Constitution and the rule of law be upheld.

Confronted with the incontrovertible fact that Sonia is a citizen and that all citizens are eligible to stand for Parliament, the Pawar–Sangma–Tariq trio have resorted to outright racism. They demand that the constitution be amended in a most reactionary manner to discriminate between Indian citizens on ground of place of birth. From this position to the idea that religions born outside India ought to have no place here, is but one short step. It is the same state of mind that produced Hedgewar’s theories, along with those of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. The trio say that citizens under 18 aren’t allowed to vote, so there is a precedent for discrimination. How clever! Age barriers to voting evaporate with the passage of time — at what stage will these patriots allow Sonia to stand for election? (That is the only point at issue, because we do not elect Prime Ministers, only MPs). Neither on ground of tradition nor of law do the RSS/BJP, Pawar, Mulayam etc., have a leg to stand on.

The political vacuity and unscrupulousness of our political elite is once again on display. A discriminatory amendment to the Constitution may be found violative of its basic structure, and could be struck down. The fact that this issue has been raised will give rise to racist propaganda during the elections, which would arguably be a violation of section 153 IPC. Opposition to the Congress, or to its leadership could have been based on criticisms of its past record, its style of functioning today and its programme. Criticisms of Sonia could have focussed on her lack of political experience, understanding of Indian society or on similar issues. Pawar could simply have said that he wanted to be the Prime Minister. But to attack a bona–fide citizen for being born outside India is symptomatic of ideological bankruptcy. This bankruptcy will be manifested in their incitement of that ancient sentiment, the hatred of the Outsider, of the person or group which looks different. For decades the communalists have made political capital out of this sentiment. (It is significant that such ideas have been lurking within senior ranks of the Congress organisation — something more for its leadership to think about, apart from the violent behaviour of its cadres during the period of Sonia’s resignation). India shall soon be witness to a vicious election campaign with nothing to support it but xenophobia. I am reminded of a tired old proverb — "Empty vessels make most noise." How true.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 1999. Year 6  No. 54, Opinion