If India is the ‘mother of democracy’ should not dissent be the first born child?

For over the two years, with the last bid aimed at white-washing international indictments of its regime, the Modi 2.0 regime has been propagating India as the ‘mother of democracy’

Mother of Democracy
Image Courtesy: orissadiary.com

A pervasive fear of targeted reprisal by the executive, the concentration of a brute political power with the state, even as public resources are handed over to large corporate conglomerates without transparency or debate, combined with the steady decline of the federal structure of our Constitution has not just led to an erasure or erosion of all democratic values. India, once an unquestioned leader of the developing world, is today being dubbed “partly free” (Freedom House, 2021) and a “partially free electoral autocracy” (Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, 2021. These are just a year old indices of freedom and democracy by three renowned global research institutions[1] contained one common observation − that India’s democracy is backsliding, leading to a rapid and alarming deterioration of political and civil liberties. In 2023, with continued incarceration of journalists, activists and political dissenters, the courts show some glimmer of home, but is the overall situation markedly better?

Even if we do not linger on the widespread attacks on human rights groups, intimidation of journalists and activists, and the daily and rampant assaults on minority communities, especially Muslims and Christians, even if we ignore of how the voice of the political opposition is sought to be snuffed off the records of Parliament, an interesting marker of the truth and falsity of this heavily propagated claim may be how ‘new India’ treats all colours of independent and yes, dissenting opinion.

Before that, it would be good to see how the man who is Narendra Modi, an emperor this time cloaked in the respectability that rotational presidential of the G-20 gave India (not him), crudely tried to make this his own propaganda win, that too a year and six months before the upcoming general elections. “It is time for the world to know India is ‘a’ (not yet ‘the’!!!) mother of democracy, declared the most effective spin doctor for this regime. This was at the start of the last, that is the winter session of Parliament, in December 2022, he told his vast constituency that this was India’s chance to ‘portray India in a wholistic manner.’ The PM said the G20 is an opportunity for the world to know India, “the mother of democracy, with its diversity and courage” and for India to showcase its resilience and strength. This was an echo of what he told lesser partymen at the meet of the office office bearers of the Bharatiya Janata Party the same month, when he said that the G-20 platform must be used to showcase India’s culture, diversity and Indianness and come up with innovative programmes that will allow for the participation of people in the events linked to the summit.

Arguably, India is seeing,  45 years after the repression of the first politically declared Emergency by former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, a sinister attack: physical incidents by the khaki (read saffron) shirts of the mob, which outfits are closely aligned if not actually affiliated with the BJP and its parent outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) against ordinary Muslims and Christians, countrywide. A political message to law enforcement across the political spectrum (achieved largely through infiltration of the services by men and women with an anti-Constitutional mindset over decades) pervades. Journalists are physically attacked if not killed with impunity. Human rights defenders incarcerated. Comics dealing with political satire have had their unique and silent share of doses of political repression. In late November last year, stand up comedian Vir Das, who had until then held several shows in the last few years without any trouble or controversies, is now facing the same problems as his peers – his shows are being cancelled at the last moment. The ostensible reasons given by those who order these cancellations is also familiar – that the performances will hurt “religious sentiments.” 

Who decides? Apparently an outfit called the Hindu Sanghatan. Extra Manch began the spiral of panic attacks: Kolkata, Hyderabad and finally Bengaluru, organisers called off his attacks. You can’t say that the far Hindutva right does not do its fair share of surveillance driven ‘research’.

Reportedly the ‘objections’ go back to a hugely successful performance by him in the USA where he spoke of ‘two Indias’,  elaborating the contradictions of what Indians say and what they do. For example,  “I come from an India where we take pride in being vegetarians and yet run over the farmers who grow our vegetables.” Not particularly funny as jokes go, but it was sharp satire which seemed born out of angst. Another one pointed out the fact of India being a country of young people ruled by 75 year olds, which could be an indictment of the ruling party. The specific line that angered these groups who are now after him was: “I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang rape them at night.” This, they claim, insults India, especially if all this is said in a foreign land!

Before this Munawar Farooqui was arrested and thrown into jail because one obscure man, Eklavya Gaur, the son of Malini Gaur, a BJP MLA in Madhya Pradesh rose to national prominence after he ‘complained to the police’ that Farooqui  was joking about Hindu deities. The police, which had no evidence against him, still went ahead and took Farooqui into custody where he had to spend time in jail for a month. Even in the MP high court, during a bail hearing, a judge talked about how ‘such people must not be spared.’ It was finally the Supreme Court that granted him bail.

Then let’s talk about the famous Kunal Kamra who’s shows have also been cancelled. Gurugram among several other places where none less than the ‘all powerful’ Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) have ‘warned authorities and issued threats. The unconstitutional power enjoyed by these close affiliates with the regime is responsible for the pervasive clamp down on dissent in the country.

Propaganda Wheel of the regime

Yet, reality aside, the propaganda circus continues. The recent statements of India’s prime minister was preceded by a unique effort by the University Grants Commission (UGC), on Constitution Day, November 26, 2022. Ironically that is the day when Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, a man who was not just the architect of the Constitution but a man, who has sharply critiqued India’s civilizational past –advocating conversion away from Hinduism to Buddhism or any other indigenous faith (October 10, 1950). In the preface of The Untouchables he wrote –

“The present attempt to explain the origin of Untouchability is not the same as writing history from texts which speak with certainty. It is a case of reconstructing history where there are no texts, and if there are, they have no direct bearing on the question. In such circumstances what one has to do is to strive to divine what the texts conceal or suggest without being even quite certain of having found the truth. The task is one of gathering survivors of the past, placing them together and making them tell the story of their birth… There is nothing that I have urged in support of my thesis which I have asked my readers to accept on trust… I am not so vain as to claim any finality for my thesis… the test of a valid hypothesis is that it should fit in with all surrounding facts, explain them and give them a meaning which in its absence they do not appear to have”.

For Ambedkar, the study and writing of history was closely linked to the destruction of an unjust social and political order.  He examined closely the links between political power and historiographical analyses. Both the tension and final resolution of both social and political contradictions remained central to Ambedkar’s historical approach. In his speech to the Constituent Assembly at the time of putting forth the Constitution of India as first Law Minister on 25 November, 1949, he said, “we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality, but in social and political life we will have inequality… How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

Emphasising both ‘new ways of looking at old things,’ he drew a distinguishing marker between a ‘learned man’ and an ‘intellectual’ affirming that the Brahman scholar was only the former. He strongly critiques the religious texts and shastras and linked them to perpetuated and institutionalised exclusion and discrimination of caste and gender, among a vast array of other irrationalities.

Then there were the Phules, Jyotiba and Savitri who’s philosophy of action showcased the structural inequalities and segregations epitomised with the Hindu dominated social and political order. If Ambedkar’s thoughts cast a unique influence on both the freedom struggle and its final outcome, the Constitutional Order, the latter part of the earlier century, the 19th saw the overarching influence of India’s first Mahatma, Jyotiba Phule. In his seminal work authored after a life’s experience in working and dismantling and re-building equitable structures at the grassroots, Gulamgiri,  1873, the main thrust of this text is an inversion of the racial theory of caste. Accepting that Brahmins are a different race who invaded and conquered the ‘us’, he debunks that they were ‘superior’ but were actually morally and otherwise corrupt, even cruel and depraved.’ Phule was Ambedkar’s self-professed guru and Phule’s treatment of cultural spaces is to expand interpretations and understanding behind the  practices and beliefs of shudras and atishudras, situating these practices within narratives of a glorious historical and cultural legacy. One such example is the story he weaves around Bali Raja even now worshipped as a popular and ‘peasant’ king, and is remembered with the Marathi saying, ‘ida pida javo, Balica rajya yevo’ (let troubles and sorrows go and the kingdom of Bali come)”.

Romila Thapar and other Indian historians have been questioned for their treatment of caste exclusion in the early Indian period. Thapar has however developed a consistent thesis on the indigenous threads of deep questions of inequality and non-discrimination in the age-old battle between the Brahman and the Shraman.

All these historical analyses and niceties are however of little interest to a regime with an aggressive even if narrow agenda.

In a recent letter to vice-chancellors and principals of colleges and universities, pushed for the idea of lectures on the theme, “India: The Mother of Democracy,” on the occasion of Constitution Day. It also prescribed a few activities for institutions based on this theme. Soon thereafter, union minister for education, Dharmendra Pradhan, launched a book titled “India: The Mother of Democracy,” prepared and published by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). How well this publication would go down with India’s vast and often radical constituency of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) signifies a contradiction that this regime represents but one that has not been electorally contested, successfully yet. ‘Mother of Democracy’ & the ‘Hindu Story’ is the book released by the education minister explores over 15 sub-themes:

  • Examples of Loktantrik-parampara in literature

  • Rig Veda and roots of Bharatiya loktantrik-parampara

  • Sabha and Samiti: Exploring Indian democratic traditions

  • Dharma-Sutras and Loktantra Upanishads and Parishads

  • Exploring Dharma as loktantrik-parampara;

  • Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Bharatiya loktantra 

  • Gana-Janpadas and Janatantra during ancient period

  • Lichchhavi Gana-Rajya and loktantra

  • Bhakti and democratic traditions

  • local institutions/khaps 

Even a quick and cursory reading of the ‘mother of democracy’ concept note presents a singular and rigid vision of India, where the lines between a secular state and the Hindu majoritarian psyche of the ruling party are blurred. Hence, when we find terms like ‘Hindu society’ and ‘Hindu mindset’ dominate the introduction, it should not come to us as a surprise. Rather, this is how the RSS is pushing its own version of constitutional Hindutva.

There are a few peripheral mentions of Ambedkar, diversity, and inclusiveness here and there, but in reality, it is a total rejection of India’s cultural and political plurality. It is completely in sync with Hindutva literature that the RSS ideologues like MS Golwalkar have repeatedly mentioned in their writings. But are India’s Dalits complaining?

It is interesting at this point to recall, the following excerpts from the RSS mouthpiece Organizer’s editorial on 30 November, 1949, four days after the Draft Constitution was adopted, explains this in detail:

“The worst about the new Constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bhartiya about it…There is no trace of ancient Bhartiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclatures, and phraseology in it…Manu’s Laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”

This old grievance of the RSS has been addressed by the ICHR. The concept note of the book talks about India’s story, or rather the “Hindu story”, of how India survived 2,000 years of invasions by “alien” invaders and cultures – a reference to Islam and Christianity.

Interestingly, this rigid dichotomy is broken by an example mentioned in the concept note. There is a section that talks about the “Existence of Ganrajya in Kalinga During Ashoka’s Invasion,” that independent democratic institutions existed in the Kalinga kingdom before Ashoka’s invasion. Historians tell us otherwise: that it’s not the so-called alien cultures or invaders who destroyed Kalinga, but it was Ashoka who brought down “Kalinga” democracy and massacred its culture.

The current Hindutva regime would not like to be publicly reminded of Ambedkar’s critical views on the scriptures that it now wants us to accept as the new source of our constitutional morality. Ambedkar’s State and Minorities, Annihilation of Caste and Riddles in Hinduism is still publicly available on various government websites.


[1] [[The three institutions, which came to similar conclusions on India’s freedom and democracy record in 2020, are the Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, the United States-based non-profit organisation Freedom House and the Intelligence Unit of The Economist magazine. Specifically categorising the Indian situation, the V-Dem Institute study said India had be- come an “electoral autocracy”, while Freedom House downgraded India from a “free democracy” to a “partially free democracy”. The Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit termed India as a “flawed democracy”. ]]




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