The Republic Day Charade
By Satya Sagar
03 February, 2014
For a brief exciting moment it looked as if Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal would actually go ahead and carry out his threat to disrupt the Republic Day parade to mark the 63rd year since the adoption of the Indian Constitution.
Unfortunately he did not but the mere suggestion he could earned him abuse as an ‘anarchist’, ‘immature’ and ‘mad fellow’ from a caucus of politicians, media commentators and sundry others. Kejriwal’s comment that for millions of Indians, such ‘celebrations are meaningless if we look at the current state of affairs" also drew flak from across the political spectrum.
And yet, in my opinion, two key historical figures who made the creation of the Indian Republic possible, Gandhi and Ambedkar, would have certainly concurred with Kejriwal’s observation and even actions.
Though Ambedkar preferred legal and Constitutional methods while Gandhi morally challenged state power – even if it was illegal to do so- both of them were staunch supporters of the democratic right of citizens to protest against unjust rule. And both would have also welcomed public debate on the status and future direction of the Indian Republic instead of trying to hush down those who raise such fundamental questions.
For Gandhi contemporary India would seem have to have become part of an ‘empire’ once again run by an immoral cabal of feudal or corporate ‘monarchs’- ruthlessly looting the land like any colonial power before them. “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him” said Gandhi once famously, but successive Indian regimes have done exactly the opposite, framing policies exclusively for the benefit of the rich and powerful.
For Ambedkar, who fervently believed in the fundamental rights of all individuals the Indian Republic – despite some improvements - would still seem to be a dictatorship of upper caste Hindus lording it over the depressed classes, indigenous people, Muslims and the poor. It would seem to him that the rulers of India have forgotten the Indian Constitution and that the purpose of becoming independent was to liberate the country right down to the last citizen and not replace external colonialism with a homegrown one.
The rise of the Hindutva ‘strongman’ Narendra Modi- considered a potential Prime Minister of India- and the RSS machinery that backs him would have also alarmed the founders of the Indian Republic no end. With their divisive and intolerant agenda Modi and the RSS would have been seen as inimical to the very idea of modern India.
And for both Gandhi and Ambedkar the annual charade of a parade would appear to be an insult to all that they held dear. The mockery of Gandhi - the apostle of non-violence – is obvious with the vulgar display of killer weapons, expensive fighter jets and goose stepping soldiers.
The centrality acccorded to the armed forces as a symbol of the Indian Republic year after year would have also hurt Dr Ambedkar as he rightly believed that it was the Indian Constitution – with its principles of human rights, federalism and separation of powers – that gave real guarantee of holding together a country as vast and diverse as India. Take away the Constitution and its values and this prison-house of castes, nationalities, linguistic and class groups would fall like a pack of cards.
The valorisation of men in uniform with guns would have appeared to both Gandhi and Ambedkar as an abdication of Constitutional responsibilities by elected political leaders, who have foisted ‘national security’ over every other priority in the country. A closer examination would have also revealed to them that on every Republic Day Parade when the Indian military salutes Indian politicians, it does so not because of the Constitutional idea of the Indian army being subordinate to an elected, civilian government. Rather it is due to the fact that both the military and other institutions of the Indian state have become partners in the crime of relentless looting of the public exchequer.
Let me explain this a bit before someone bursts a blood vessel in a fit of patriotic fervour. Steadily over the years India, which is also a nuclear power, has become the world’s 3rd largest military force and the 7th largest spender on defence. In 2013 the Indian defence budget, at US$37.4 billion (subject to scrutiny by Parliament but usually passed without much debate) formed over 10 percent of the total government expenditure (in contrast to just 2 percent for health and 4 percent for education).
India is also, for many years, the world’s largest market for imported arms. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute from 2008-12 India’s arms imports, accounted for 12 per cent of global imports and were 109 per cent higher than those of China, the second biggest arms importer. While in 2000 India spent an estimated US$ 911 million on arms imports by 2013 this had risen to US$4.6 billion.
In fact while Manmohan Singh welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as chief guest at this year’s Republic Day celebrations, his officials were busy behind the scenes negotiating a deal for the purchase of 15 Japanese-made amphibious aircraft, priced at about $110 million each. Later this year India is also expected to sign a US $10 billion contract for 126 French Rafale fighters.
Some of the obvious beneficiaries of such massive spending on arms by the Indian government are global arms manufacturers, their agents and also very senior officials of the Indian armed forces. The CBI’s recent indictment of former Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi for receiving cash in return for favouring Anglo-Italian helicopter company AgustaWestland in the controversial Rs 3,600 crore VVIP helicopter deal, is just one out of dozens of defence scams that have never come to light.
Nobody is suggesting (as Gandhi himself might have done), that we need to do away with the Indian military. In a treacherous world swarming with both old and new imperial powers trying to pick on weaker nations, a modern army is a must for the survival of any developing country. And yet what are the implications for this splurging of scarce national resources for the day-to-day security of the Indian population?
The answer is probably quite well known but worth reiterating. India, not only has over one-third of the poorest people in the world it also happens to have the world’s largest number of children suffering from malnutrition. The prevalence of underweight children in India is also among the highest in the world, and is nearly double that of Sub-Saharan Africa.
The 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report, which measures progress and failures in the global fight against hunger, found India ranked 69th in the world, well below China, Sri Lanka and even Pakistan. When it comes to education the situation is equally bad with UNESCO just recently estimating that 37 percent of the world’s illiterate adults, over 287 million people, live in India.
And all this while a few Indian business families have amassed immense wealth at the expense of the entire nation. Today, India’s top ten billionaires alone account for over 12 percent of the country’s GDP while 7,850 Ultra High Net Worth individuals account for a phenomenal US$935 billion, which is half of India’s GDP! A majority of them have made their money in areas such as real estate, construction mining and infrastructure where collusion with politicians and government officials is the key to success.
Dr Ambedkar in his speech presenting the Indian Constitution to the Constituent Assembly on 26 November, 1949 said, “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”
He is proving to be prescient now as the Indian ruling elites push the country into becoming a full-fledged police state to maintain these social and economic inequalities. As public opposition to government policies rises so does the money and powers allocated to the men in uniform. India now has the world’s largest paramilitary force, which in size is almost the same as the entire Indian army. As report after report on the human rights situation in the country shows, all these uniformed men, who behave like the private militia of the Indian state, are the biggest violators of fundamental rights of Indian citizens enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
So how would have Ambedkar and Gandhi responded to the current situation of the Indian Republic? Despite their sharply contrasting approaches to various issues both of them were concerned primarily about strengthening the democratic process and the condition of the common citizen.
While Ambedkar frowned upon both ‘bloody revolution’ as well as the ‘grammar of anarchy’ evident in even non-violent agitations he also was a staunch proponent of using democratic rights to transform social realities. As he once said, ‘We are having this liberty (provided in the Constitution) in order to reform our social system, which is full of inequality, discrimination and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights.” Despite his opposition to the Congress in the pre-Independence period Ambedkar, as a great democrat, upheld their right to protest against unjust rulers and represented many of those arrested by British colonial authorities in his capacity as a lawyer.
Gandhi was skeptical about the idea of ‘rights’ and preferred to use the term ‘duties’, which he urged everyone to carry out irrespective of where they were placed in society. At the same time he also pointed out that if the rulers failed to carry out their responsibilities then it was the duty of the citizen to oppose them in a non-violent manner. Gandhi, who was the ‘grammarian of anarchy’ that Ambedkar referred to, would have perhaps enthusiastically supported a nation-wide movement of civil disobedience against those who run the Indian Republic today.
In fact, given the complete deviation from Constitutional values and objectives as well as the prevailing political ethos of loot of the country both Ambedkar and Gandhi would have both called for nothing short of a rebellion to re-establish democracy in its true sense.
The ‘madness’ and ‘anarchy’ of public protests to them would have appeared preferable to the ‘grammar of stability’ that allows corporate and feudal ‘monarchies’, in collusion with the Indian military and police, to hold the billion plus people of this country to ransom in perpetuity.
Satya Sagar is a writer, public health activist based in Santiniketan, West Bengal. He can be reached at email@example.com
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