Worshipping False Gods: An open letter to fellow Indians

A former Union Minister for External Affairs, Salman Khurshid is a practicing lawyer

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This letter comes from someone many of you have known, supported in myriad ways, honoured with high office, sometimes challenged for opinions you found uncomfortably out of the box, but always given a sense of belonging.

It was for that reason that I wrote the book At Home in India and the play Sons of Babur. But as I watch somewhat helplessly what is happening to my home, I need to ask you to reflect on circumstances that we seem to have created for ourselves.

Lest the celebration of India Rediscovered become a disguise for the rot of our collective soul, we need to be truthful to ourselves and, indeed, to each other.

Much as the hype pronounces India Changed, the recent weeks have seen an amplification of what that means rather than what is sought to be conveyed about the meaning. At the same time, there are visible signs of you, the common citizens, beginning to do a rethink on the Change of which you were willing, indeed, enthusiastic participants.

You were told there was widespread corruption; power was in the hands of a few; our society was captive to inefficiencies and incompetence; politics was myopically focused on appeasement of the undeserving simply because their numbers count in a democracy. For all these and many other reasons, you were both asked for and offered Change.

This regime’s message is loud and clear: history is to be rewritten, not made, says Salman Khurshid

You opted for that irresistible salvation and, in the process, deserted people you had for long trusted, loved, supported and made part of the folklore of the land. This was not just about the normal and natural democratic evolution of public opinion or, at least, was not seen as such by the victors.

It was seen by the winning side as a repudiation of the immediate, modern past assiduously structured by the pioneers of Independence, beginning 1857, and tirelessly perused by the succeeding generations that inherited the freedom. Of course, much of the immediate past was profoundly influenced by wholesome wisdom and values of the ancient Indian civilization.

The victors have promptly set out to change not just the present but the past as well, emphasising their own perception of history and culture.

Ideas and things we took for granted growing up are suddenly being questioned. It is perfectly fine to have vastly differing views in a democracy, but no society can survive without a core of philosophical agreement and consensus. Such core values are normally institutionalised in the constitution that a society gives itself.

If the constitution comes under a cloud or its plain meaning that has been the mainstay of our nationhood is sought to be twisted or contorted, the society can be in deep trouble. Failure of the state can happen for many reasons, but no less due to the repudiation by myopic persons of the supreme document the first generation of free citizens gave to themselves.

Sadly, bit by bit, that is beginning to happen. It is no longer politically incorrect to say and do things that were condemned as fringe views. Formal disassociation is expressed by the ruling elite, but not formal disapproval.

Many mainstream characters have gone silent. They protested at our imperfections and shortcomings, but now fall back on the notion of discretion being the better part of valor.

‘The victors saw your vote as a rejection of the modern past built by pioneers of Independence’

The tide of forced change is growing: look at the universities, IITs, IIFT, Nehru Museum, ICHR, ICCR. Yoga is fine, but cow urine as a disinfectant? Renaming Aurangzeb Road might just be endorsed except by top historians, but is this just the beginning? Indiraji and Rajivji will no longer be postal currency.

The message is loud and clear: history is to be rewritten, not made.

There had to be some reason for people, so many people, to accept the alternative worldview offered at the last election. We might never really know what the reason was.

Was it that we made mistakes that you were unwilling to overlook? Or were you just itching for change and to experiment? It could not have been that you actually believed what you were told about us, as indeed about what was possible in our lifetime. The good times were within grasp you were told, never mind the King of Good Times (Vijay Mallya) had lost his Kingfisher flights of fancy, the signature of the India we had given to you along with the RTI, RTE, MGNREGA, NRHM etc.

You had never really had it better, yet you repudiated our bonds because prices were high and you were told that we cared more about ourselves than you. Corruption, real or imagined, became a shield for every conceivable immorality, including the killing of innocents. There is no point in complaining about your credulousness because the whole world seems to be willing to forget, if not forgive.

But you still have to decide what India you wish to leave for your children. Will it be a land of freedom or will it be regimented? Will it encourage and nurture a range of ideas or will we all have a a format to follow? Do we hope to be loved and admired in the world as Gandhiji, Nehruji and Indiraji were, or do we want to be feared and held in false awe?

We are repeatedly told that India is stirring for change if it hasn’t changed already. But this is a mistake for India in many ways is unchangeable, has been unchangeable and must remain unchangeable. The issue between us and the present regime is on what is Unchangeable India.

We believe they see India as flat and two dimensional while we see it in many dimensions. We draw inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi whilst they are ambiguous about Nathu Ram Godse, to say the least. They live in fear of losing identity, we celebrate the evolution of identity which naturally preserves the best in our social DNA.

‘It’s no longer politically incorrect to say and do things that were condemned as fringe views’

The last few years have been a losing battle for us against our myopic adversaries because they succeeded in making us self-conscious about our beliefs. Some of our own began to doubt the validity or, at least, the efficacy of our democratic faith. We made a tactical retreat in the face of seemingly overwhelming resistance to our positions. We were so afraid to lose that we created conditions that ensured our defeat.

Secularism, much abused of late, can only be understood objectively if linked with liberalism. People think secularism is about how we treat minorities but looked at from the point of view of liberalism, it is about how we treat people, and minorities are also people. We cannot deny a person even the right to think differently from us, leave alone prevent them from living their lives as they please or, indeed, not even let them live.

The assassination of rationalist intellectuals and the merciless public lynching of a citizen on mere suspicion of consuming beef is a reminder that intolerance has an ally in official apathy. A loquacious prime minister suddenly becoming silent on these occasions adds to the worry.

But did we not ask for this with our eyes closed? No one would defend lack of business ethics, if such was the case, in 2G, CWG, coal deals etc. But can it be said that lack of integrity in those matters was a greater threat to our society than what we see around us these days and are sure to see more of in the months and years ahead?

There are basically two approaches to community life: to live by loose consensual standards, or to live by strict standards imposed by the edict of the rulers.

This certainly does not mean that the latter does not reflect some accepted standards of society. Fascism too, after all, rests on the foundation of a significant size of population targeting the rest as the ‘other’. Every dictator in history has sought what he thinks are populist measures that can garner support amongst the ruled. Even rigged election results have something to do with that notion.

On the other hand, dissent and disagreement in decision making is certainly not an easy thing to handle, particularly when resources are scarce and people impatient. Such pressures are the beginning of repression that we see in varying measure. Societies most committed to democratic values have periodically lapsed into non-democratic conduct by state authorities such as police misdemeanors in the US, often against African-Americans.

We are quick to point out the shortcomings of others but reluctant to accept our own. This, of course, has nothing to do with the government of the day because a change in political government does not mean the administrative structure also changes. Some people change but the system prevails. It is the system that controls us like the stars in the life of Shakespeare’s Horatio.

Besides the dazzling promises of the good life that Mr Modi promised the Indian voter in the run up to the last election, he sought to build up envy, disquiet, distrust, blame, dislike against our leadership and the Nehru vision. Decades of tireless striving to make India great were rubbished to the point of virtually declaring India a failed state that he would salvage.

Recall his statement on foreign soil that there was a time “when Indians were ashamed” to speak about their origin! What India and which Indians does he know to have said such a thing on authority? That is not the only astonishing thing he has said and, undoubtedly, he will not stop at that either.

We will have to find our own strategy to deal with this but the priority must be the future of minorities in India. The world is in a crisis and we must not add to its problems. Mr Modi thinks laterally and must feel he has already resolved the ‘minorities issue’ just as his predecessors might have thought they had done it through the partition of the country.

But that is not so easy. It will require thoughtfulness and conviction on the side of the majority, and clarity as well as practicality on the part of the minorities. In saying that, let me be clear that the micro minorities have their legitimate concerns but the issues in contention are essentially of Muslims and Christians.

Forgive me for believing and saying that of the many things that our country needs to fix on priority is the issue of minorities. The UPA consciously worked to address the issue of diversity and deprivation with honesty and sagacity.

We attempted to set at rest all arguments and competing contentions about entitlement deficiencies of minorities through the definitive findings of the Sachar Committee. Very ambitious and unprecedented plans were put in place to deliver development opportunities of education, jobs, finance, access to municipal facilities etc. The vision and outlay was indeed impressive.

But, understandably, the roll out took time as most of it had to be implemented by the states that were not always prepared for such an onerous responsibility. We had modest success in many critical areas such as scholarships, jobs, credit etc, but many others remained somewhat stillborn such as schools and colleges in every district.

They promised good times, never mind the King of Good Times had lost his Kingfisher flights of fancy

Our real missed opportunity was the proposed Equal Opportunity Commission that would have taken us to the next generation of affirmative action. We had consciously worked on a strategy that would have ensured delivery to minorities without unleashing negative propaganda of appeasement.

So we zeroed in on the districts that had a substantial minority population; developing infrastructure there would automatically benefit the minority population and bring them acknowledgement for securing the development of the area. Sadly narrow, perhaps politically motivated, demands by Muslim groups forced the UPA leaders to exert and forcefully argue the brief in favour of the work done.

We obviously made less impact on the beneficiaries upset with bureaucratic delays and intransigence but ended up becoming vulnerable to motivated attacks from the opposition. Having lost the perception battle, we have become self-conscious about our vocabulary and perhaps even the content of our policy. Conceding ground here will be fatal to our political philosophy.

It is, therefore, imperative that we take stock and fine-tune strategy to defeat the invidious attacks of our political opponents. But in this enterprise you, members of the majority and minority communities alike, have a major role to play.

As you reflect on your responsibilities and corresponding responses, please keep in mind that despite your respective discontent, real or imagined, and despite our collective failures, we are a great deal better off than many parts of the world.

The bloody civil wars of Europe are settled but the Arab Spring has quickly turned into a bitter winter. The crisis of refugees flooding Europe, very tragically flagged by the picture of the infant Aylan Kurdi, is telling us something.

Our reactions might be muted for reasons not always apparent to others. Refugees are a controversial issue in India, particularly when their arrival impacts political outcomes due to changed demography. Yet, we have accommodated, temporarily if not permanently, refuges from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Be that as it may, our duty to ourselves as well as to the world is to contribute to overall prosperity and happiness rather than deprivation and distress. In a worldwide trend for accountability and reparation for past wrongs, India now finds itself at the crossroads of ‘forgive and forget’ versus ‘tireless struggle for justice’.

How will we be a family again if we have a deep sense of hurt and violation? Forget punishment, there is not even expression of remorse. Every sincere attempt to raise the issue prompts a tirade of competing complaints about other alleged wrongs. But we know that two wrongs do not make a right. It took decades to overcome the trauma of Partition, and rebuild broken lives and disturbed sentiments. How long will it take to remove the scars of recent trauma?

But we have to move on and must, therefore, find the acceptable path. But that path cannot be in any group being asked to accept defeat and consequent subservience. Our common search for the path we have to travel together makes dialogue imperative.

‘We are told India must change. But India, in many ways, is unchangeable and must remain so’

In recent years, our politics has moved away from dialogue to monologues. We need to change that dramatically and with a sense of urgency. Our constitutional goal of equality and our natural instinct for equality are automatically addressed through dialogue because dialogue by definition happens among equals.

I must thus urge all you good people to shun the current tendency of shouting to overwhelm opponents or people with different points of view and commit yourself to dialogue, both at the national level and in our private lives. We cannot all achieve everything we seek or desire but we must get substantially our just deserts.

India is a great example of unity in diversity. It is time we discovered that diversity is what makes our unity endure. It is this diversity that enriches us. Attempts to dilute that diversity are fundamentally antithetical to the idea of India we all cherish and value.

We must all, therefore, examine where we might have gone wrong, what our unique strengths in a troubled world are, and what is the price demanded from us to preserve and protect our faith as against the cost of letting go.

To the majority community, let me say, take a leaf out of Nehruji’s book and not destroy liberal minority leadership if you cannot nurture it. To my minority friends, let me say, let your best grow naturally and not destroy them with an overload of extreme expectations.

We have a record of communal harmony that can be a role model for other plural, multi-cultural societies. This is despite periodic aberrations of discord and, more recently, of deliberately provoked conflict and violence. Let us fortify that, instead of sacrificing it on the alter of ambition and financial advancements.

Each religious faith in India has its God, perhaps a common idea with different names and human-imagined attributes. We would be clear of all trouble if we worship our Gods instead of being distracted by false gods.

Allow me to end my letter with the prophetic words of John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee.

Hope to hear from you to take these thoughts further.

With best wishes,

Salman Khurshid

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