Polarization over the prevailing socio-political orientation since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office has been marked and a bitter sectarian fissure has emerged in India, writes Cmde C Uday Bhaskar (retd) for South Asia Monitor
The world’s oldest democracy, the USA, was stunned on Wednesday, January 6 when pro-Donald Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill in anger to reject the electoral verdict that chose Joe Biden as the next American president.
It was an ugly night that resulted in four deaths and will be recalled as a sad day for democracy, both in the USA and for the rest of the world. A deep, divisive and destructive polarization has engulfed the USA since the Barack Obama-Trump transition in January 2017 and this bitter divide permeates state and civil society.
The USA is now preparing for the Biden-Kamala Harris team to assume office on January 20 and attempt to contain the toxicity that contributed to the socio-political polarization culminating in the tragedy of January 6. This will be a daunting task, for the Trump support base includes thousands of white supremacists who have become a law unto themselves. Almost 71 million Americans voted for Trump and many see themselves as guardians of ‘real America’ and a distinctive, exclusionary culture that is disparaging of the ‘other’ – be it by race or religion.
Stoking divisive polarization for electoral advantage is a familiar political tool but the long-term corrosive implications can become intractable and the USA is coming to grips with this ugly reality. Such polarization nurtured by cynical politics and a fawning media has a certain correspondence for the world’s largest democracy – India.
In the run-up to Republic Day on January 26 when India will reiterate its commitment to its founding principles, the ‘love jihad’ laws recently enacted by the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand governments have come into sharp and critical focus. ‘Love jihad’ is a term of recent vintage, coined by the Hindu right-wing, for Muslims who they allege seduce Hindu women to convert to Islam on the pretext of love and marriage. This ostensible attempt to prevent forced religious conversion draws attention to an intense debate about India’s commitment to and interpretation of the constitution and the manner in which it is playing out among one cross-section of its citizens.
At the core are two documents that are in the public domain - the first an open letter addressed to the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (December 29) signed by a group of retired civil servants and former government officials who are part of CCG (Constitutional Conduct in Governance); and the second a detailed response in the form of a public statement by 224 eminent citizens under the banner of Forum of Concerned Citizens (FCC) that includes retired members of the higher judiciary, civil and police services, armed forces and academia.
The December 29 CCG letter notes with concern that recent events in UP have a bearing on “the continued unity of our nation" and gravely add that “the state of UP is blithely undermining that very Constitution.” Sharing their anguish about the infamous Moradabad travesty of December 5, (where a couple was accosted by alleged Bajrang Dal vigilantes who used the UP ordinance on ‘love jihad’ to intimidate the couple that resulted in the death of an unborn baby) the last section of the CCG missive merits full quotation.
It notes: “Chanakya taught us, a crafty politician must sow dissension amongst rivals. Here you are sowing dissensions among our own people. We, therefore, demand that the illegal ordinance be withdrawn forthwith and those Indians that have suffered from its unconstitutional enforcement be suitably compensated. The policemen who were responsible for allowing this must be called to account under the law, suitably investigated at a senior level of the magistracy and if found to have facilitated the death of the unborn infant, be put to trial under the IPC.” It further adds a candid recommendation: “Moreover, the entire police force of Uttar Pradesh needs to be trained without delay in respecting the rights of all citizens; and the politicians of UP, including yourself, need to re-educate yourselves about the provisions of the Constitution which you and other lawmakers have sworn to uphold.”
The list of 104 signatories to the CCG letter comprises retired civil servants and police officers (Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Foreign Service (IAS), Indian Revenue Service (IRS), Indian Police Service (IPS)) and includes former National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon and a large number of senior bureaucrats of the Government of India who have held high office during their careers. A random sampling includes T K Banerjee (former defence secretary), Julio R Riberio (former DG Police) Nirupama Rao (former foreign secretary), Rana Banerji (ex-Cabinet Secretariat), and many other highly respected former officials.
Anguish and anger
It would be fair to aver that the December 29 letter reflects the anguish and anger of many Indians who are apolitical and Hindus by faith and who have been deeply disturbed about the manner in which the Hindutva vigilantes have targeted innocent Muslim citizens with impunity periodically – cocksure that the law dare not touch them. Shades of the white supremacists in the USA? The tragic killing of 16-year-old Junaid Khan (June 2017) on a Delhi-Mathura train and the fact that justice still remains elusive and that Hathras (the brutal gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit girl, whose body was hurriedly cremated by the police) and Moradabad will join this list is an ugly pattern that casts UP - the country's most populous and politically consequential state - in poor light.
However, the Jan 4 statement by 224 luminaries has Yogender Narain – a former defence secretary, chief secretary of undivided Uttar Pradesh and a secretary-general of the Rajya Sabha - as the sherpa. This is a rare mix of high office held during a civil servants career and the preamble of the statement is caustic and asserts: “It is a matter of concern that one group of retired civil servants, visibly biased with an anti-establishment attitude despite overtly posing as ‘non-political,’ repeatedly avail of every opportunity to put Indian democracy, its institutions, and persons legitimately holding high offices in poor light before the whole world by making ill-considered public statements, or writing misconceived communications to various authorities.”
This is the first time that one can recall wherein senior civil servants, albeit retired, have taken such polarized positions in public over politically charged constitutional matters and the sub-text is instructive. The list of 224 has 14 former judges, including two chief justices of High Courts; 108 civil servants (42 IAS, 6 IFS, 34 IPS, 26 other services); 10 academics and 92 military veterans.
A highly polarized India
Polarization over the prevailing socio-political orientation since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office has been marked and a bitter sectarian fissure has emerged in India. The CCG-FCC sparring is the tip of the iceberg and what is being evidenced among the retired community will in all probability have its variant within the serving community (civil and police) that is part of the governance octopus that administers/regulates India.
In years bygone, the innate professional neutrality and commitment to the constitution of the senior civil service, higher judiciary and the military were not in doubt and stood India in good stead. This tenet is now being tested and inflexible polarization along political and ideological lines now permeates Indian society in a distinctive and disturbing manner.
The question that arises is that if the bubble bursts - as it did in Washington DC on January 6 - will a divided India be able to show enough resilience to rise to the challenge of the occasion?
(The writer is Director, Society for Policy Studies - SPS. The views expressed are personal)