Character Certificates for the Masses
Era of bitterness and empty posturing
As the curtains come down on one of the most bitterly imagined cross-purposes by a large section of society, the prime minister finally announced, “Today, I want to tell the country that we have decided to repeal the three farm laws”.
The announcement was followed by an auto-instinctive cacophony of the usual suspects, who quickly assumed the expected positions.
One side alluded to the “masterstroke,” a now familiar term – perhaps the coincidental timing of the elections had something to do with it – whereas the opposition leader tweeted, “The country’s farmers have defeated arrogance with their satyagraha” – both contrary assessments and expressions rooted in political (purely, partisan) intent and passions.
While such fundamental disagreements between the dispensation of the day and the opposition are necessary and healthy in democracy, one stark lesson (among many others) stares us collectively as a proud, patriotic and civilisational citizenry.
This is the absolute necessity of disagreeing and dissenting on the merits of the case, without making any untoward, ungracious, expansive or completely uncalled attribution on the “others”, especially the one with a minority denomination or opinion.
At its own peril the much bandied “world’s largest democracy” increasingly forgets Noam Chomsky’s astute observation, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all” – and for a bit too long we have been mired in rather thin-skinned hypersensitivity, illiberality and mock outrage that does not behoove a confident 5,000 year old civilisation, that has historically punched above its weight in morality and decency in government, be it with a Nehru on one side or a Vajpayee on the other, post Independence.
The last 15 months of the farmers protest have seen less debate on the actual issue and contentious clauses per se, and more fire and fury devoted to casual and reckless attributions onto a section of society and onto a religious community.
It is no one’s case that economic reforms are not required in any country, or that changing any status quo is ever easy. The 1991 economic reforms were no different, and they were importantly opposed tooth and nail by the Leftist parties. Parts of their concerns which may have otherwise been overlooked were forced to be addressed – yet the extremely polarising, demeaning, and divisive rhetoric of today’s rote “anti-national” and other such expressions, spared the opponents of the 1991 reform, even though they were in the minority in the public eye.
That same large-heartedness, civility and inclusivity in tenor was manifest in the Vajpayee era of right-wing dispensations. There was a collective sense of belief and usage of words like rajdharma (ruler’s duty), maryada (moral code), Laxman rekha (ethical bound) on both sides of the political ranks, which by and large insisted on moderation as an inseparable, aspirational and demonstrated way of Indian life beyond partisan considerations.
Sadly today, seemingly the nation is in perennial election mode, and the ends justify the means. To galvanise cadres through echo chambers, many are complicit by words or silence in calling the protesting farmers Khalistanis, “on the payroll of Pakistan”, “anti-nationals” and what have you!
These attributions target a community that was also selectively used to dangle the convenient names of Bhagat Singh, Sardar Uddham Singh etc., when useful to score a political brownie point, but casually shamed as Khalistanis when that specific use was exhausted and a different electoral stake was on the horizon.
That these protesting farmers on the outskirts of Delhi were essentially from the dustbowl districts of Haryana, Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh – regions that have always given their blood for the nation, and need no certification to prove their loyalty, fidelity and sacrifice to the nation – was all but forgotten, and the cherry-picking of odd acts of obvious malintent and misdemeanour were further used to paint the entirety of the movement as “anti-national” and its derivatives.
Somewhere along the line, beyond the functional merits or demerits of the farm reforms, communities were being “othered” – just as it had happened months earlier with the nationwide protests against the CAA/NRC. Is it the implication that to protest or question the acts of the government of the day is “anti-national”?
Indeed, incidents like at Red Fort or the lynching of a man accused of sacrilege are unpardonable and need to be strictly booked under law – yet, it is equally important to reflect on the relative discipline, harmony and inclusivity with which the farmers (whose numbers touched lakhs at one time) have conducted themselves over fifteen months.
There have been no reports of mass harassment, vandalization, theft or misconduct in general, even though a certain level of discomfort, complexity and rearrangement may have been warranted owing to the protest.
The visibility of that selfless sacrifice, unimaginable pain and duty by the farmers finally triggered the prime minister to state that it is “not the time to blame anyone” and that “What I am doing is for the country”. Hopefully the wounded land gently introspects, heals, and cleanses itself of the unnecessary hate, haste, and bombast.
One of the byproducts in recent times of majoritarian culture is the ready disbursement of unsolicited character certificates, especially pertaining to “nationalism”, onto anybody who does not conform or agree to a stated position – even if the issue is essentially an economic one.
In times of acute socioeconomic vulnerabilities, where people’s sheer survival and dignity are at stake, such attributions of convenience are highly avoidable, as they further wound the soul of the emotionally displaced, irreversibly.
Instead of healing, assuaging, and convincing disaffected people in the spirit of constitutional inclusivity and equality, these lazy and inelegant attributions linger in the conscience of the accused, a lot longer and more painfully than is often imagined.
These social attributions have been at the heart of fanning separatist movements, be it in the North East, the Naxal belt, Kashmir, or earlier in Punjab. History insists on more restraint, prudence, and the essential democratic right of dignified dissent – and this can be done in parallel with maintaining the necessary steel of the security forces and its accompanying imperatives, in conjunction.
Both those in the dispensation and in the opposition ranks pale in comparison to the erstwhile pedigree of leadership, who for all their human frailties of occasional missteps, wrong decisions, and weaknesses, remained essentially decent, genteel, and becoming of a civilisational people.
Sadly, no one can hold a candle to the mellifluous grace and erudition of a Vajpayee or the unmatched statesmanship and vision of a Nehru – the so-called ideological heirs apparent, are simply not so.
This is an era of bitterness, small spiritedness and empty posturing across the political board, and the tact of attributions, whether overt or sanctified by silence, reflects the same.
As the prime minister rightly summed up, “something was lacking in our dedication that we could not explain the truth”. It is only the decoding of the “truth” pertaining to the finer clauses and changes in Farm Law that needs to be discussed, debated, and aligned across the board. This is what matters, and not attributions.
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry