India's Plural Ambience Under Threat: Hamid Ansari
THE CITIZEN BUREAU
NEW DELHI: Vice President Hamid Ansari sat down with journalist Karan Thapar, with the interview covering a range of issues relevant to India’s political and social milieu today. The Vice President answered questions relating to his relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav, racist attacks on Africans, lynchings in India, the concept of ‘Love Jihad’ and ideas of nationalism. Mr. Ansari also spoke candidly about political issues, including his handling of the Rajya Sabha, he opposition’s concerns about the government misusing the money bill provision, the situation in Kashmir and even the India-China standoff in Doklam. The interview will air tonight, Thursday, August 10, at 8 PM on Rajya Sabha TV.
Excerpts from the interview:
KARAN THAPAR: Mr Vice President, let me start with a rather unusual question – you were born on April Fool’s day in 1937. Is that the secret of your success?
HAMID ANSARI: Well most of my life I got away without having to give a birthday party. And that tradition was broken only in my first birthday in this House, when a message came in the morning that Dr and Mrs Manmohan Singh would wish to come and wish you happy birthday. I couldn’t say no to that!
KARAN THAPAR: And a couple of other things that I suppose, we shouldn’t mention...Let me put it like this, as Vice President you’ve had this unique and privileged vantage point to look at the functioning of the Indian political system. This is also the 70th year of our independence – has our political system functioned effectively and smoothly? Or is it often dysfunctional and perhaps disruptive?
HAMID ANSARI: It is both. It has been both. Two things have happened. Over a period of 70 years, democracy has deepened in the country. There’s much greater voter participation, much greater public interest in what is happening in the political field. On the other hand, the functioning of political institutions in the country at various levels, is not at its best.
KARAN THAPAR: And is that because of an individual responsibility, presumably it must be?
HAMID ANSARI: Well, collectively yes. Not individually, but collectively.
KARAN THAPAR: So, has the quality of the people who man institutions deteriorated, as the institutions themselves have become more established?
HAMID ANSARI: No, the quality has not deteriorated but the mannerisms have changed. I mean, you could not imagine, for example, in early mid 50s or even in 60s, disruptions of the kind that take place in the House today.
KARAN THAPAR: You were also Vice President between two very different Prime Ministerships. There was Manmohan Singh to begin with and Narendra Modi thereafter. Both men, we all know, are very different. Are there senses in which they are similar, which you may be aware of but the audience perhaps doesn’t know?
HAMID ANSARI: I think that would require a little time to dilate on.
KARAN THAPAR: Because you can’t say…
HAMID ANSARI: Because the personalities are very different. The functioning styles are very different. Now, you may find common points in their functioning styles. Personalities are obvious to everyone, I don’t have to talk about it.
KARAN THAPAR: Does the Vice President have a fairly close relationship with the Prime Minister of the day? Or is it a very formal one?
HAMID ANSARI: It’s most of the time a formal relationship but there are occasions when there are very serious conversations.
KARAN THAPAR: Now one of the things that have happened and attracted enormous attention because, it is something that has never happened before, was in 2015 when a senior leader of the BJP, he was General Secretary then, he still is General Secretary now, Ram Madhav tweeted in public criticising your behavior as Vice President. He said that you had deliberately not participated in Yoga Day functions in that year and he also added that Rajya Sabha TV which falls under your charge hadn’t covered the event. Now, I know that Mr. Madhav both apologised and deleted the tweets but as I said that never before has the General Secretary of a ruling party publically questioned, leave aside criticise the president. Were you surprised and taken aback by that?
HAMID ANSARI: Surprised yes because the facts were well known and very clear and there were my colleagues in office who put the public wise to it very quickly. There was no ambiguity, there was no confusion.
KARAN THAPAR: Were you upset that this had happened?
HAMID ANSARI: Not really.
KARAN THAPAR: Because it was a breach of protocols to say the least?
HAMID ANSARI: Well yes, but protocol is breached from time to time.
KARAN THAPAR: Did you take up the matter with the Prime Minister?
HAMID ANSARI: No.
… KARAN THAPAR: Something else that you did when you were Vice President was to travel extensively in Africa. In the last five years alone you have travelled to ten different countries. But many of those visits happened at a time when the number of attacks on Africans in India was steadily growing and each attack seemed to be worse than the last and it was creating enormous concern particularly amongst the African ambassadors who publically commented with anger.
HAMID ANSARI: Yes.
KARAN THAPAR: Did the heads of states you visited bring up this matter?
HAMID ANSARI: Not that I recollect. No.
KARAN THAPAR: Now, the official position of the government of India articulated by the spokesperson of the MEA and the Foreign Minister was that these are not racists attacks but the African ambassadors angrily dissented, they did so publically and large sections of the media was convinced that this was racism. As someone who was an intelligent observer although watching from behind the Vice President’s house, what was your opinion? Was this an instance of Indian racism or simply law and order?
HAMID ANSARI: Well, it is scandalous to begin with. It was the failure of law and order and it was the failure of public behaviour. There can’t be two views on a situation like this wherever it takes place, anywhere it takes place.
KARAN THAPAR: So, was the official response the right one or should they have been more willing to accept that this is more than just law and order?
HAMID ANSARI: Could have been more forthcoming.
KARAN THAPAR: That’s a very important point you have said. I want to use this moment Mr. Vice President to talk about the general situation in the country today because I know it is one that concerns the large sections of the country. Hardly a day goes by without us reading about cow vigilante attacks, earlier we read about lynchings, we have read about beef bans, people who refuse to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ have been publically told that they should leave the country, there have been accusations of Love Jihad, Ghar Wapsi campaigns and even killings of rationalists. How do you view all of this? Sitting in this house, how did you view all of this?
HAMID ANSARI: Breakdown of Indian values, breakdown of the ability of the authorities at different levels in different places to be able to enforce what should be normal law enforcing work and over all the very fact that Indianness of any citizen being questioned is a disturbing thought.
KARAN THAPAR: Why were Indian values breaking down suddenly?
HAMID ANSARI: Because we are a plural society that for centuries, not for seventy years, has lived in a certain ambience of acceptance.
KARAN THAPAR: And that ambience is suddenly changing?
HAMID ANSARI: It is under threat.
KARAN THAPAR: Today as we speak there are many who believe we are becoming an intolerant country. You have read about these articles in papers, you have seen these debates in television. Do you fear that yourself?
HAMID ANSARI: Yes, because I interact with fellow citizens and there are great many people from different walks of life who come and talk about it.
KARAN THAPAR: So you share the concern that intolerance is growing in India?
HAMID ANSARI: Yes and I spoke about it in my last speech in Bengaluru few days back.
KARAN THAPAR: You did and I want to quote you on that in a moment’s time. But have you ever shared our concerns, you apprehensions with the Prime Minister or with the government?
HAMID ANSARI: Yes.. yes. But what passes between the Vice President and the Prime Minister in the nature of things must remain in the domain of privileged conversation.
KARAN THAPAR: Understandably, but the important point is that as Vice President you felt a need, a moral need to raise this issue with the Prime Minister and you did do so.
HAMID ANSARI: With the ministers also and with the Prime Minister also.
KARAN THAPAR: I want to ask you about their response, were you satisfied?
HAMID ANSARI: Well, there is always an explanation and there is always a reason. Now it is a matter of judgement, whether you accept the explanation, you accept the reasoning and its rationale.
KARAN THAPAR: Once again that’s a very important answer and the wise will certainly be able to understand what you are saying. Let me put it like this, something else has also happened. In the last few months the Supreme Court has ruled that Jana Gana Mana must be played before every single film screening. In more recent times the Madras High Court has ruled that Vande Matram must be sung at least once a week in Tamil Nadu schools and colleges and at least once a month in government offices and private establishments. Once again, these two rulings have divided public opinion. How do you view them? Do you see them as any example of judicial overreach or is it essential for us to pay this exaggerated obeisance to the national anthem and national song because our nationalism requires it?
HAMID ANSARI: The courts are a part of society. So what the courts tend to say sometimes is reflective of what the prevailing atmosphere in society is. I call that a sense of insecurity.
KARAN THAPAR: A sense of insecurity reflected by the judges in what should be their considered opinion?
HAMID ANSARI: Not of the judges. No. I am talking of the public sense. This propensity to be able to assert your nationalism day in and day out is unnecessary. I am an Indian and that is it.
KARAN THAPAR: And it should be taken for granted that every Indian is loyal to the country? You don’t have to prove it.
HAMID ANSARI: Oh Absolutely. Oh Absolutely.
KARAN THAPAR: Many people say that as a result of such comments, as a result of the mood they have created, the Muslim community is apprehensive, it’s feeling insecure. Is that a correct assessment of how Indians Muslims feel or it is an exaggerated one?
HAMID ANSARI: Yes it is a correct assessment, from all I hear from different quarters, the country; I heard the same thing in Bangalore, I have heard from other parts of the country, I hear more about in north India, there is a feeling of unease, a sense of insecurity is creeping in
KARAN THAPAR: Are they beginning to feel they are not wanted?
HAMID ANSARI: I would not go that far, there is a sense of insecurity
KARAN THAPAR: Now an issue that has dominated the news in recent months concerning the Muslim community is this debate about Triple Talaq and I want to ask you where do you as a Muslim stand on it? Do you believe that this is an issue for the courts to sort out because it is a matter to do with gender rights and gender justice or is it an issue best left for the Muslim community to resolve internally themselves.
HAMID ANSARI: Firstly, it is a social aberration, it is not a religious requirement. The religious requirement is crystal clear, emphatic, there are no two views about it but patriarchy, social customs has all crept into it to create a situation which is highly undesirable.
KARAN THAPAR: So should the court step in?
HAMID ANSARI: You don’t have to, the reform has to come from within the community.
KARAN THAPAR: Would it be wrong for the courts to step in?
HAMID ANSARI: The courts can say that we don’t recognise it. That’s all. I mean a marriage has to be recognised on certain occasions by the system of the state. And if a state functionary at a particular point of time refuses to recognise a happening which may be the product of a Triple Talaq that’s it.
KARAN THAPAR: So the courts will simply formally decree we don’t recognise Triple Talaq but the reform has to happen internally from within the community?
HAMID ANSARI: Exactly. It has to. You see, the people have to understand the basics of the faith what has happened is that the tradition has overtaken the essentials of faith, therefore the modernity has to be (KARAN THAPAR: Caught up with) caught up with, without letting go of tradition but you address modernity with tradition and tradition with modernity.
KARAN THAPAR: You can’t separate the two artificially.
HAMID ANSARI: You can’t separate the two and you know it is quite impossible to do that.
KARAN THAPAR: Again, you answered very clearly and the intelligent will immediately discern what you are saying. My last question before I take a break given the fact that Muslims are feeling insecure, apprehensive, uncertain; given the sort of political rhetoric that keeps resonating, are you worried that the number of Indian Muslims get attracted to ideologies like al-Qaida or ISIS could start increasing sharply? There are already some who have been attracted and have joined up, could that number grow sizeably or is that an exaggerated fear?
HAMID ANSARI: No I don’t think. The official figure estimates are that if there are numbers they are miniscule. I think the Muslim in India is sui generis. Mind you, every seventh citizen of India is a Muslim just as every fifth citizen belongs to a religious minority. These are facts on the ground. There is no evidence that any process of extremist indoctrination is underway in India, an individual can always go off the track.
KARAN THAPAR: Once again that is a very clear answer, do not exaggerate the fear that is sometimes voiced in papers and television that Indian Muslims could start embracing al-Qaida or ISIS?
HAMID ANSARI: Oh absolutely. You know those are products of local situations in certain contingencies that situation does not prevail here and I hope it never does prevail.
KARAN THAPAR: Let me ask you a question about your successor and I ask it only because many members of the Rajya Sabha, which is still your House, are voicing and are concerned about. Unlike you, he’s been a politician all his life. He’s been not just a minister but a president of the BJP. At a time when the government is concerned and conscious about the way that the Rajya Sabha can check and delay its legislation How confident are you that your successor will give the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha a fair hand and a fair say?
HAMID ANSARI: Look at the history of Indian Vice-Presidents. They have been politicians, they have been philosophers, they have been educationists, they have been senior most members of the judiciary. They have all delivered. Nobody has said that they have not delivered.
KARAN THAPAR: And you believe that will be true of your successor.
HAMID ANSARI: Of course. The job dictates the response.
KARAN THAPAR: I want to push you if I may with one thing. Very recently as a minister, your successor once described the Prime Minister as God’s gift to India. That comment lingers in the minds of many Opposition MPs of the Rajya Sabha. That makes them wary. What will you tell those MPs, your MPs still, who are wary of your successor because he has called the Prime Minister God’s gift to India.
HAMID ANSARI: Each individual thinks for himself. Each member of Parliament, I have no reason to doubt the capacity to think on everybody’s part.
KARAN THAPAR: But you are confident that the responsibility of the job when he sits in that Chair will change him?
HAMID ANSARI: Absolutely. Because that is the only way the job can be done.
KARAN THAPAR: So the requirements of the job will change your successor’s thinking, attitude and behaviour and that’s been true of all previous Vice-Presidents as well?
HAMID ANSARI: I go by their record. I am not an astrologer but I go by their record.
For part two: here