Constitution, Conscience And The Citizen
A personal Preamble
I am writing this on the eve of our first “Janata Curfew” – as requested by the Prime Minister. In response to the Covid-19 Pandemic sweeping across the world, Indians in a-typical fashion, will lock ourselves in for 14 hours tomorrow and will mobilise the full force of our numbers to say “Go Carona Go!”. In keeping with local tradition, the panchayat bodies made announcements from the usual Cycle rickshaws and two wheelers with loud hailers reminding everyone that the event will start at 7am and end at 9pm. At 5pm every Indian, in city, town and village has been asked to come out of our homes and clap hands, beat thalis, sing and shout out our recognition of the yeoman work put in by so many – medical, nursing, other essential services and all of those who have worked hard for us the people. Temporarily it is almost as if the fragmented nation have been brought together to fight a common enemy. And for once that Enemy is not the one across our Western Border! So to return to my narrative :
A Personal Preamble
I am a citizen of India. I have lived for the past 26 years in a small village Bhaimala in Raigad Dist, Maharashtra, after having served in the Indian Navy from January 1949 to September 1993. I was born in Bombay on Sept 5 1933, However, I do not have a Birth Certificate! Neither do I have the birth certificates of either my father or mother. In fact I have no idea where they were born nor when! My father migrated from then Madras to Matunga, Bombay. So although I call myself a citizen and have lived nearly 87 years in India, according to the new norms and regulations of the NPR and NRC I might well be counted among those marked D or Doubtful and D for Detention Camp!
We moved to Delhi when I was 6 years old. I lived and studied there until I left home in January 1949 to join the Inter Services Wing of the newly created Armed Forces Academy in Dehra Dun. General Rodrigues, Air Chief Marshal Suri and I were cadets together, and eventually ended up heading our respective services as Chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force between 1990 and 1992.
The decade in Delhi was one packed with historic events – at the national and global levels – events which conditioned my own thinking and shaped the destinies of millions, in fundamental ways.
1939 – World War II declared. For a six year old the true impact of the Hitler era and the genocide of millions of Jewish people registered much later.
1945 – The War ends. But not before the first use of the Atomic Bomb by the USA against the Japanese people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. This profoundly influenced my position about nuclear weapons in later years.
1947 – India wins Independence – but the terrible memories of Partition remain indelibly etched in one’s mind. Some images stand out: a brutal knifing of a hapless Muslim before my eyes an angry mob outside our home in Bengali Market, Delhi, threatening my father with violence if he did not send out his friend Ghulam Mohammed who had sought shelter with us; and seeing Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, disregarding his personal safety, jumping out of his Landmaster and using his lathi disperse a mob who were all set to ransack the landmark Connaught Place bookstore – S. Riazuddin & Sons.
1948 – Jan 30 - The cold blooded killing of Mahatma Gandhi – the most traumatic event of them all. For this 14 year old, Gandhi was the moral force behind the Freedom struggle. Intuitively I knew even then, that this was not just an act of physical elimination. It was an attack on all the ideals and values of the new India.
It was an outrageous act by religious bigots who were also the proponents of the two nation theory which basically argues that Hindus and Muslims were essentially two different nations who could never live together. In many ways this sowed the seeds of future communal violence.
INDEPENDENT INDIA AND THE ARMED FORCES
I joined the Armed Forces of the newly independent India, fired with the idea that it was our generation, the youth, who would be in the fore front of the march to uphold and implement the recently adopted Constitution with its courageous vision as outlined in the Preamble.
Several hundred of the best minds in India were members of the Constituent Assembly which prepared the vision document for the fledgling nation under the leadership of Dr Ambedkar. It was this body that firmly endorsed the decision to keep India both secular and democratic. Pakistan eventually became a theocratic [Islamic] state. Millions of Muslims chose to remain in India believing that in a secular state, they could expect equal treatment, justice and fair play.
The members of the Indian Armed Forces, are drawn from all communities, from all states and are expected to be a-political and to respect civil control of the military. The President of the country was also the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. We cadets were taught the Preamble, and were grounded in the basic tenets of the Constitution. We believed that it was our sacred duty and responsibility to defend those values. Symbols and religious insignia were never on public display. Our only Holy Book was the Constitution of India. It was to this we adhered, from this that we derived our value base, and to this that we owed our allegiance. It was an article of faith that “country and people came first, and self, last.”
DEMOCRACY AND ITS CHALLENGES
So why am I, a former head of service, labouring this point today, having served in uniform for 45 years.
We have experienced several challenges, both internal and external, in the course of these 73 years of post colonial existence. Kashmir, the North East, Maoist/Naxal rebellions, language riots and inter state water issues to name just a few. The wars with Pakistan, creation of Bangla Desh, India-China conflict, the Nuclear tests and sanctions, are some among the major external ones.
In my view, the far more serious threats to our progress and security are continuing mass poverty, widespread agrarian distress, and our inability to meet the basic needs of our people. These continue till today. The growing disparities of wealth and poverty have created conditions of both economic and socio-political dystopia – which is like a tinder box ready to erupt at the slightest provocation, and often does.
We in the Armed Forces, continued to guard the borders and provided the necessary support in peace time, to civil power during natural and other calamities. The guiding principles of the Constitution continued to be the spirit that ensured that we functioned as a non communal and secular force despite fissiparous tendencies.
However things began to change, and like a creeping virus, we began to see the visible alteration in the attitude and behaviour of those tasked with maintaining Law and Order - primarily the police and the paramilitary units. These were also the forces who interacted both with the public and more crucially, with political leaders. But, civil society and the military alike, we averted our gaze away from the steady communalisation of these two important arms of state power.
It might be worth retracing some of the factors that have gone into weakening the democratic fabric and destabilising the institutions . Inevitably these have impacted on the Military and other institutions.
. 1975 – DECLARATION OF EMERGENCY – India faced one of the biggest threats to democracy. And yet the people fought back – and we pledged never to allow an Emergency like situation in the country again. Today we seem to be facing the equivalent of an undeclared Emergency.
. AFSPA – Of particular relevance to those of us serving in the Armed Forces, was the continued imposition of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act [AFSPA], in the North East and Kashmir. Repeated efforts to repeal this have been unsuccessful and has in turn served to alienate those in uniform from the people
. THE MILITARY AND AID TO CIVIL POWER - The primary role of the Armed Forces is to defend our borders. They are called in to assist civil power only when there is a total break down of law and order. The roles of civil and military are well demarcated. When political parties are unable to find solutions to the increasing challenges on the ground, they have resorted to the use of authoritarian measures, with the police all too often acting as willing handmaidens of politicians. This also led to the gradual proliferation of para military formations such as the BSF, CRPF, CISF, RAF, who also reported to the Home Ministry.
THE EVENTS OF 1984, 1991,1992/3, 2002 AND 2020
Between 1984 and 2004 there was a steady deterioration in the overall situation with respect to many of the internal contradictions. Congress was weakening. Two assassinations, of a serving and a former Prime Minister – Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The cumulative failures of the Congress and the omissions and commissions of the frequent succession of Prime Ministers provided the ideal conditions for the Right Wing to come to power. With increasing contradictions on the ground, and a strongly Hindutva based, ultra Nationalist agenda, the NDA I relied on Nuclear Nationalism – the Pokhran tests of 1998, and fell back on the tried and tested strategy of Divide and Rule. Between the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the rise of the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement in 1992, and the Gujarat Carnage against Muslims in 2002, a deep and vicious polarisation on religious lines was taking place. Sadly, it appeared that neither civil society nor the ‘secular’ parties appreciated the damage that was being wreaked by this divisive, communal and hate filled agenda, disseminated across the country by the huge army of hard core, well trained and disciplined RSS workers.
RECLAIMING THE REPUBLIC
Returning to my concern as a Former Naval Person, some questions still remain as to how we should reclaim the Republic. And in this context it is important to recall that even the present Government has sworn allegiance and is bound to uphold the Constitution.
So where did we go wrong and drift away from the core values of the Constitution . How did the scale and nature of the communal indoctrination taking place in the security forces, escape the radar scanners ?
Why did civilian/ political authority, time and again, delay the deployment of the armed forces to take charge and stop the orgy of violence against communities which were allowed to continue unabated for days on end?
I refer here to four specific instances - namely Delhi 1984 and the brutal targeting of over 3000 Sikhs in the carnage following the assassination of Smt Indira Gandhi. This was followed in 1992 by the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the violent repercussions. Ten years later the country witnessed the pogrom against the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. And now in 2020 the capital city has witnessed horrific violence, most likely instigated and targeted mainly against Muslims.
The Growth of Communal Politics
An acceleration of communal politics was seen in the run up to elections in Uttar Pradesh. There was a deliberate build up of anti Muslim sentiments and the large scale mobilisation of Hindus around the demand for a Ram Mandir The recruitment and training of Kar Sevaks in the run up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid was an open secret. And yet we the citizens of India, with a few honourable exceptions, kept silent and even applauded . This set of actions was clearly undertaken with the sinister aim to capture political power and was no spontaneous eruption of religious frenzy. That a democratic, secular India could witness such a spectacle under the ‘benevolent gaze’ of politician and citizen was shocking It was a water shed moment that brought together reactionary political and social forces who were collectively responsible for inciting and fanning the flames of communal frenzy.
Despite efforts to alert the political establishment of the imminent destruction of the Babri Masjid, we the three Service Chiefs and Scientific Advisor, [the late] Dr Abdul Kalam, could not convince the powers that be to take action to prevent this catastrophe.
In each of the above instances, there is enough evidence to establish that despite Army Units being available and present, the civilian authority – both administrative and political – did not call in the army in time to prevent the violence against targeted minorities.
. Clearly the police failed to carry out their mandate to protect the lives and property of innocent citizens. Most Inquiry Commissions have left the crucial question untouched or unanswered – namely the reasons underlying this abject dereliction of duty by the police force and the failure of leadership to foresee and counter the communal mindsets. The logical follow up question concerns the role, extent to which politicisation / communalisation of paramilitary and the Armed Forces, all of whom serve under the same Constitution and its secular values.
THE SAINIK AND THE NAGRIK
During all the decades we spent in the Service, we were subject to the Army, Navy or Air Force Acts respectively and therefore were not at liberty to make any comments or offer any opinion in the public domain, on matters which touched on security and governance. In retrospect, one can question the reluctance of those of us in uniform to take stands in certain situations – brought up as we were under very strict norms of what we could or could not express when in uniform. The advice we tendered to Government especially in situations like that of the Babri Masjid being one such instance. Against this it is also appropriate here to quote the classic example of a General, a bold Army Chief, who refused to follow orders to go to war in 1971, unless it was at a time militarily appropriate – which would be his to determine. In this case the Government of the day concurred with his professional advice. There is a thin dividing line between what is political and what is not!
However, every service person, in uniform, be he or she in the police, the military or para military, is also a citizen who has the duty and the right to cast his or her vote. The act of casting a vote is clearly mandated by our Constitution. This logically implies that the person casting a vote has evaluated the capabilities and qualities of the candidate, the party and has made an informed choice which is then expressed via secret ballot in the polling booth. This is a clearly a political choice. The right to exercise our franchise is one of the fundamental and defining features of the democratic system opted for by India when we fought for and won our Independence.
It was only after my retirement and being catapulted from the peak of privilege as Head of the Navy, to becoming plain old “Nagrik” Ramdas of Gaon Bhaimala, in Maharashtra, that my own Education to Reality began – at the age of 60+! I felt I was a sixteen year old, back in my early years in the Academy, having to do the kind of work that I might not have done in years.
At sixty, I was lifting heavy bags of cement off of trucks; tramping around the hot sun in tall grasses and anxiously praying that we strike water; standing in line to pay electricity and phone bills; and applying for a loan from the bank to help build my first and my only home. All of these actions earned me the respect of my fellow villagers and the local officials - primarily because they saw a retired Fauji – that too a former Nao Sena Adhyaksh – actually working shoulder to shoulder with local folk with no demands or sense of entitlement. As my understanding of rural life and tough realities grew, so too did my realisation that our priorities as Indian citizens had to be radically reviewed and redefined. I found myself seriously looking at the issues of National Security versus Human Security. So it was that this veteran began to work in fields which were hitherto unknown, sometimes ‘forbidden’ territory. Human Rights violations – understanding the scale and why it was imperative to address these – especially as former military person – AFSPA is a case in point.
People to People contact with Pakistan – as Chair of Pak Indian Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy [PIPFPD] 1995 onwards ; Kashmir - visits to Pakistan and to Kashmir as a part of ongoing efforts to keep dialogue open and building bridges of peace and avenues for interaction. My active involvement in the wars with Pakistan, and winning a gallantry award in 1971, convinced me that there could never be a military solution. Dialogue and Peace had to be the way. This took me on several interesting missions!
1998 - opposing the nuclearization of South Asia after Pokhran and Chhagai through the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace [CNDP]; Demilitarisation in South Asia, through IPSI – Indian Pakistani Soldiers Initiative for Peace;
2002 Representation to Prime Minister Vajpayee, Inter faith delegation, dialogue and peace efforts after Godhra and Gujarat pogrom;
2004-2007 - Leading a struggle against land Mafia takeover of over 22 villages here in our area of Raigad Dist ; 2004 - awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace - jointly with Dr I A Rehman of Pakistan .
Throughout this time, I have continued to write letters - addressed to both the Presidents , and the Prime Ministers of the day, on a range of different issues - from growing intolerance, to Indo Pak dialogue, to Kashmir, to the communal killings of 2002, and more recently to the Election Commission on the Politicisation of the Military and to the Chief Justice of India the Judge Loya case. The ‘concerned Citizen’ in me, also agreed to take on the responsibility of being Lokpal (Ombudsman) to the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party -2012 to 2015 . I was never a member of the Party.
Making Democracy Work –
The essence of keeping alive a functioning, healthy democracy is a massive, and challenging task , and can only be successful when there is a continuing citizen engagement at every level. This means that the elected representatives, from Gram Sabha and Panchayat level, right up to the Prime Minister, demonstrate the humility to engage with the Praja, listen to the people, and together develop an understanding of the process of dialogue and ‘aadaan pradaan’ – sharing of views and ideas. A genuine respect for the Constitution of the country, summed up in the Preamble, must be central to this process. And the core value repeated throughout is that the fundamental purpose is to secure Justice, Liberty, and Equality to ALL citizens, and to promote Fraternity amongst the People.
Over the past six years we have been witnessing a vicious and totally unconstitutional campaign targeting the largest ethnic minority in the country – namely the Muslims. Electoral campaigns have shamelessly exploited the Armed Forces too . In the run up to the 2019 general elections, the military were used with impunity as part of the election campaign, especially by the incumbent party in power. So much so, that this prompted about 450 veterans to append their names onto an open letter to their Supreme Commander, the President of India, to urge the EC and the leaders not to politicise the Armed Forces through their Election Campaign.
The avoidable introduction of the CAA, NPR and NRC in December of last year, was like the last straw which fanned the flames of deep anxiety and insecurity among large sections of our people.
In the run up to the Delhi elections in January 2020, the impunity evident in the inflammatory and hate messages have reached a level never before envisaged or witnessed. We appear to have lost sight of the age old tradition of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakkam’ – the world is a family. The all pervasive emotion is one of fear, fear of repression, fear of being persecuted and then prosecuted and ‘disappeared’. And so, many who should be speaking up and speaking out – especially the media, the corporate sector, public intellectuals, writers, actors, academics and others, have remained silent.
As a military veteran and a proud member of the Indian Armed Forces, I wish to state with all the emphasis at my command, that this communalisation of India is totally unacceptable and unconstitutional. Our Armed Forces, as indeed the police and other security forces, represent a microcosm of India who have members of all communities in our military. It is time for us to stand up and be counted as faithful foot soldiers of the Constitution which we will defend.
This is the India that boasted of a Havildar Shaheed Abdul Hamid, son of a darzi from Ghazipur in UP, awarded Param Vir Chakra [posthumously] for action during 1965 ; Lance Naik Albert Ekka from Jharkhand, in the 1971 war, also posthumously awarded the PVC; and Lt Col Tarapore of the Pune Horse who was also awarded the Param Vir Chakra – the highest gallantry award, to name only a few among the many who laid down their lives defending the country. We have had professional leaders of integrity and courage, from every one of our minorities , who have held the highest post in our Forces – including the late Field Marshal ‘Sam’ Manekshaw, Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif, Marshal of the Air Force – Arjan Singh, Air Chief Marshal Engineer, and men like Admiral Ronnie Pereira and Oscar Stanley Dawson. How can we forget them and betray our basic values and the Constitution to which we swore allegiance?
Remaining true to that ‘Holy Book’ must also mean that we no longer remain silent when we hear and see the brazen attacks on our fellow Muslim citizens and on Islam. We must call out those who bad mouth any sect, faith or community – be it from a politician from the top downwards, or from our own band of veterans, some of whom seem to have joined the chorus of anti Islamist propaganda.
To quote from a recent article by one of the few armed forces veterans who has chosen to speak up
:“the lawlessness of the UP government of Ajay Singh Bisht, the open expressions of Hate in the name of religion all over the country, the venom spewed daily by BJP spokesman and leaders, all keep the communal pot boiling. When sane voices express dissent at such poison, they are branded anti nationals and told to go to Pakistan. As a result, India’s delicate social fabric is being torn and its International image has taken a beating. It doesn’t help that our important institutions have been compromised, and the Highest Courts in the land have become timid.”
It is this lethal combination of those who dream of a religious state or Hindu Rashtra in India and who have aggressively promoted Hindutva, that has emerged as one of the real threats to our democracy and its very foundational ethos.
Recent events have been deeply disturbing and I felt I needed to share my thoughts with a wider audience. By calling for us to Reclaim our Republic, I speak as a loyal, patriotic and proud Indian – and refuse to be dismissed or arraigned as an anti-National or indeed, to be hauled up for Sedition.
I also call upon every veteran – be he or she from the regular Military or from the Police and paramilitary – to return to that original inclusive framework which our founding fathers and mothers articulated with such clarity, humanity and the greatest spirit of inclusiveness. We need to reclaim and proclaim that this is the true spirit of a secular India and rebuild our country and our Armed Forces to live this vision and prevent the destruction of the idea of India and its Constitution.
Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, PVSM, AVSM, VrC, VSM, ADC served as Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy,