Can the people of India prevent the 'schism' of the nation's soul?

The national mood was well summed up by a cartoon that showed all others in the race locked up, with just the incumbent in the field, and then the question, half in jest: ‘Who is winning?’.

Jagdish Rattanani Mar 27, 2024
India votes (Representational Photo)

“When the world sleeps,” Jawaharlal Nehru said, “India will awake to light and freedom”. More than 75 years from that momentous occasion on August 15, 1947, when we should be celebrating how that light and freedom nourished us and made us proud citizens of a nation that stands tall on the values we may cherish, India has slipped into a very different phase. It is painful and it may not be inappropriate to say at this stage that darkness descends as freedom is being robbed, democracy is being crushed, and India is sleepwalking into a collapse.

The collapse is not sudden; it has been coming for some time now in the face of a creeping capture of institutions, key individuals and agencies who have all in one way or another been forced to bow to one thinking, one party, one ideology. The hunt is on for more spaces to capture, powered by one large and well-fed propaganda machine manufactured by the one party that wishes every opposition out of sight and out of mind. This has all the marks of an invasion.

The arrest of Arvind Kejriwal, the highest elected official of the Delhi government, bears repeating, by an agency that has zero credibility and works more like the handmaiden of the government in power and is in all probability sold on the ruling party’s political agenda, is only one telling example of just how much of pressure is being mounted to keep that one party in power and discredit all others. It isn't easy to see how a fair election might be fought in 2024. The national mood was well summed up by a cartoon that showed all others in the race locked up, with just the incumbent in the field, and then the question, half in jest: ‘Who is winning?’. All bets are off at this stage and we are in icy waters. We may yet reach ashore safely but the risk of hypothermia is particularly high.  

The warning is loud and clear

Nehru told us: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” Today, that line might read: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step back from the new and sink into the dark ages, and when the soul of a nation, that at last found utterance, is once again suppressed. We know not how this soul, tortured, tormented, crushed, will hold out for a day when India may bloom again and regain the values and the spirit of the constitution, which however fine a document, eventually depends on the integrity of the people who are meant to safeguard it."

The dangers were always there and were indeed articulated in so many words. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, speaking on 25 November 1949, one day before the Constituent Assembly passed the constitution, sounded the warning loud and clear: “I feel, however good a constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot …  The factors on which the working of (the) organs of the State are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave?”

The next day, 26 November 1949, Dr. Rajendra Prasad echoed those sentiments: “If the people elected are capable and men of character and integrity, they would be able to make the best even of a defective constitution. If they are lacking in these, the constitution cannot help the country. After all, a constitution like a machine, is a lifeless thing. It acquires life because of the men who control it and operate it, and India needs nothing more than a set of honest men who will have the interest of the country before them … It requires men of strong character, men of vision, men who will not sacrifice the interests of the country … who will rise over prejudices.”  

Killing the spirit of India

Today, policy and its execution itself is about exercising prejudices. Some institutions are standing up, as in the case of the remarkable Supreme Court verdict by the five-judge constitution bench that struck down the electoral bonds scheme of 2018 and ordered that the details of who bought the bonds and who got the money be divulged. Yet, the desperation to stop this was so much that the largest nationalised bank of India, the State Bank of India, had the gall to file a junior officer’s affidavit to ask the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court to amend its order – asking for three months, no less, to release the data that was, as it turned out, readily available. It was naturally seen as a blatant attempt to keep the dirty secrets of the money trail and extortion of the ruling apparatus via the bonds from coming out before the elections. The affidavit was as good as false because the data was eventually released by the deadline set by the Supreme Court. 

How does a bank lie to the SC in an affidavit on one of the most significant judgements of our time? How does the Income Tax initiate action and freeze funds of the Congress, one of the most significant political parties? How does a judge of the High Court take early retirement and immediately thereafter get a BJP ticket for the elections? How is it that a governor has to be told by the Supreme Court to follow the Constitution and not stop an elected government from functioning?

The historian Arnold Toynbee who studied civilisational collapse told us that collapse comes not from invading forces, not from the outside but from a form of suicide. Societies in disintegration suffer from a “schism of the soul”. We have an internal collapse. The biggest questions today are not how good the economy is, not who will win the elections, but questions on how the nation stands up against forces that may well kill the spirit of India right from inside its most hallowed spaces.

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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