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Pranab Mukherjee and ‘constitutional patriots’ should understand that tolerance is not a one way road

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Yesterday, the former President of India, Pranab Mukherjee delivered a speech to the RSS cadre at the closing ceremony of the ‘Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg‘ (three-year training program for swayamsewaks). There was a great deal of hullabaloo over his participation at a Sangh event. Media, his former party men and secular intellectuals who preach tolerance demanded Pranab Mukherjee to reconsider his decision to address the cadre of RSS.

Some reports in the media claimed that the former Congress president Sonia Gandhi ordered Congress leader Ahmed Patel to tweet on the subject. In spite of all this noise, the former president delivered his address to the RSS gathering. That is commendable.

Pranab da’s speech was indeed a scholarly one. It includes highlights of the rich history of India; delves into the nature of nationalism and the need for tolerance in society. He highlighted the meaning of nation, nationalism and patriotism, in an attempt to clarify where he stood on these terms. According to me, the most important part of his address is this (emphasis added) :

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 The Indian Constitution, consisting of 395 articles and 12 schedules, is not merely a legal document but a Magna Carta of socio-economic transformation of the country. It represents the hopes and aspirations of the billion plus Indians. From our constitution flows our nationalism. The construct of Indian nationalism is ‘Constitutional Patriotism’, which consists of an appreciation of our inherited and shared diversity; a readiness to enact one’s citizenship at different levels; the ability to self-correct and learn from others.

Though I agree with this formulation in a broad sense, I would like to add three points to Pranab Mukherjee’s idea of nationalism that ‘flows from the constitution’.

  • Nationalism based on the constitution and shared diversity will be sustainable only if we understand and condemn those parts of our history which divided India. We need to condemn these events unequivocally if the idea of ‘Constitutional Patriotism’ is to survive.
  • Tolerance is not a one-way road. Different communities must make sacrifices in the spirit of preserving India’s shared heritage and pluralism.
  • Every anomaly/contradiction in the constitution which is antithetical to the principles of fairness must be removed if it has to sustain in the long run.

Condemn strands of history that defeated the spirit of India

There is no doubt about the fact that the former president is a constitutional patriot. Probably, he hopes that rest of India will also become like him. Perhaps he is one of those idealists who wants to look at the positives and ignore the negatives. In his worldview, India has a ‘common history, a common literature and a common civilization’. He says ( emphasis added) :

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Any differences that may appear are only on the surface but we remain a distinct cultural unit with a common history, a common literature and a common civilization. In the words of the eminent historian Vincent Smith, “India beyond all doubt possesses a deep underlying fundamental unity, far more profound than that produced either by geographical isolation or by political superiority. That unity transcends the innumerable diversities of blood, colour, language, dress, manners, and sect.

But Pranab Da did not speak about events in the country where a divisive figure like Mohammed Ali Jinnah was being eulogised as a freedom fighter. He was absolutely silent when people were fighting to keep a portrait of Jinnah in a central university. Jinnah broke India into two (and later three) pieces based on religion. Just like we condemn Hitler for murdering Jews, we need to condemn Jinnah for breaking the spirit of India that many of us cherish. This studied silence on ugly strands of Indian history will undermine the ability of the nation to combat such a situation if it appears in the country once again.

Tolerance is not a one-way road

Pranab Mukherjee had the following words to say regarding the plurality of India and tolerance :

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The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. This plurality of our society has come through assimilation of ideas over centuries. Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us into one nation. India’s Nationhood is not one language, one religion, one enemy. It is the ‘Perennial Universalism’ of 1.3 billion people who use more than 122 languages and 1600 dialects in their everyday lives, practice 7 major religions, belong to 3 major ethnic groups- Aryans, Mongoloids, and Dravidians live under one system, one flag and one identity of being ‘Bhartiya’ and have ‘No Enemies’. That is what makes Bharat a diverse and united nation.

The former President might have tasted the brand of ‘tolerance’ we have in India when accepted the invitation of RSS. But he might be missing some other examples of this one-sided ‘tolerance’ where only the majority Hindu population has to compromise.

There is no tolerance on part secularists on the matter of ban on cow slaughter. If a Hindu feels hurt when the cow is slaughtered, why does the ‘secular’ citizen of India insist on eating its meat? If a Hindu wants to have a Ram temple, why does the Muslim refuse to make way for a temple in a sacred site? We must announce this sentence on a loudspeaker five times a day: ‘tolerance is not a one-way road’.

Eliminate the contradictions in our constitution

No matter how much we eulogise our constitution, we must realise that there are some contradictions in it. If these contradictions remain, sections of society will suffer from disharmony and a sense of partisan treatment by the state. Three important anomalies are as below :

  • Concessions to minorities under Article 29 and Article 30 which are against the principle of equality of all citizens before the law. Minoritarianism which stems from these articles has a huge potential to divide citizens. Therefore they must be eliminated.
  • Failure to implement the directive principle which prescribes uniform civil code for all citizens of India (Article 44) is another roadblock in creating a united India. If we postpone this forever, we give rise to a distinct group of people who will dissociate from the mainstream society.
  • Article 370 which distances the state of Jammu and Kashmir should be scrapped. This provision creates a distinct class of citizens in India and therefore violates the principle of equality.

Pranab Mukherjee’s idea of Constitutional Patriotism is a good one. It can definitely take us a long way in the future. But, we need to fix some contradictions in the polity and public discourse of India if that idea has to sustain in the long run. Otherwise, the ‘Constitutional Patriotism‘ that Pranab Mukherjee subscribes to will find few takers outside the Lutyens zone in New Delhi.

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