NEW DELHI: There have been few Vice President, let alone Presidents of India, who have earned the kind of respect Hamid Ansari has over the last ten years. Appointed as a consensus candidate of the Congress and the Left---although there were many in the Congress who took potshots at him even then---Ansari was not known to all, who saw in him little more than a retired diplomat. His name was proposed by the Left at the time, and cleared by a reluctant Congress party. Ansari was not a Leftist, far from it, but a progressive who had impressed those who came into contact with him, with his inner dignity and intellect laced with a wry sense of humour.

Soon, as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Ansari melted political hearts and after a couple of sessions of Parliament even the cynics could be heard praising the dimunitive, smiling, figure as he reached out to shake a hand, or saluted the other with a cheerful ‘adaab’. In the Chair he made the law and the Constitution his only term of reference--- a fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to in his farewell speech for Ansari in the Rajya Sabha although it did not sound like high praise--- and perhaps disappointed some by his steadfast refusal to even bend just that little bit towards one side or the other inside the House. And just as he had ignored Congress carping in his initial days as Vice President, he ignored BJP bullying in his last days as well.

No one who knew Ansari could doubt what he stood for. The Constitution and the tenets it enshrined. Over the last couple of years in particular, there were occasions that many in the Parliament can recall where they saw the Vice President fairly disturbed, but he did not allow the deterioration in the communal environment to impact on his functioning as the Chairman of the Upper House. And smiled his way through PM Modi’s speech, laced with barbs in the Rajya Sabha where he referred to the religious identity of the Vice President indirectly, scoffed at his career diplomat background, and ridiculed the background and the environment that had shaped Ansari’s ‘core beliefs’. And if anyone was in doubt about the intent of PM Modi, the BJP followed through with a direct attack on Ansari.

PM Modi was particularly disconcerting as he virtually castigated the former Vice President as being influenced by his diplomatic postings in West Asia, where he interacted with “them” (Muslims?), of his further experience as chief of the Minorities Commission (Muslim again), and as the Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University (what could be more Muslim than this). And hence the implication, that of course the BJP spelt out more directly, that Ansari could only be expected to be critical of the current environment and speak of the ‘insecurity’ of the minorities in India.

And as if this was not enough PM Modi also scoffed at career diplomats after defining Ansari as one, where he stated that he only got to know what this meant when he assumed office, and realised that their smile and their handshake did not reveal their real thoughts.

Of course the troll army is out in full strength attacking the former Vice President, as he had dared at his final speech in Bangalore carried in full by The Citizen, to speak of the vitiated environment today.

However Ansari has made it clear over his final days in office that he will not be cowed down. And in his address to the Rajya Sabha stated very clearly that "a democracy is likely to degenerate into a tyranny if it does not allow the opposition groups to criticise fairly, freely and frankly the policies of the government." Hesaid while the members "have every right to criticise, their right of criticism should not degenerate into wilful hampering and obstruction of the work of Parliament. All groups, therefore, have their rights and their responsibilities".

He also said that "a democracy is distinguished by the protection it gives to minorities. .... But at the same time the minorities have also their responsibilities." And added as a pointed reminder, “this House is a creation of the Constitution and reflective of the wisdom and foresight of the founding fathers who wished it to portray India's diversity and to be a calibrated restraint on hasty legislation.”

It is sad and highly regrettable that the government of the day has responded to the last words of a Vice President with such hostility and animosity. And allowed a ‘what can you expect of a Muslim’ sentiment to be bandied about for an intellectual who has brought great dignity to his office, and can certainly never be accused of carrying his religious identity on his sleeve in any of the public offices he has held. His colleagues in the Ministry of External Affairs had only high praise for him, as indeed have most of the parliamentarians today. For Ansari equality, justice, rights have always been a direct source of the energy driving him. He has never hesitated to speak on these issues, and has always lauded the diversity and pluralism of India.

The farewell speech by PM Modi in the Rajya Sabha was perhaps the most direct in stating the core belief that there is no space for dissent today. Added to by the relentless vitriol unleashed against a former Vice President of India by a political party till date.