by Debora Spini. Confronti Study Center
The very existence of the Indian Republic is the result of a courageous political project which, in a huge mosaic of languages, ethnic groups and religions, found a common ground of identity in the founding values of the Constitution. But the ruling party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – has made a drastic reversal of these ideals.
In his famous 1947 speech A Tryst with Destiny, Jawaharlal Nehru – Indian Prime Minister from 1947 to 1964 – greeted the arrival of freedom, and at the same time remembered how much work still had to be done to transform into reality all the dreams still unfinished. He concluded with these words: “These dreams are for India, but they are also for the world.
THE DREAM OF INDIA AND ITS CONSTITUTION
India’s dream was to build a great nation of citizens that was democratic, egalitarian and secular. Despite the enormous obstacles – first of all the profound injustices and the appalling poverty in which a large part of the population still lives today – this dream has at least partially come true. Despite experiencing often dramatic setbacks – to give but one example, the dark season of the “Emergency” in the seventies – and the persistence of fierce contrasts, India has actually become the largest democracy in the world. The very existence of the Indian republic is the result of a courageous political project. What we usually call “India” was and is actually a huge mosaic of languages, ethnic groups, religions, which found a common ground of identity in the founding values of the Constitution and certainly not in an improbable ethnic or religious homogeneity. It is no coincidence that Indian scholar Aditya Nigham defines the Constitution as the “social contract” of modern India. The 1949 Constitution entitled “We, The People of India” proclaimed India to be “a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic”; in 1976, the constitutional text was amended into “a sovereign and democratic republic.”
Even in the most recent version, after the amendments of ’76 -’77, the Constitution affirms the commitment to ensure to all citizens “JUSTICE, social, economic and political; FREEDOM of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of conditions and opportunities; and promote each other by ensuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.”
Secularism was therefore an integral part of the dream, or project, of building an Indian political identity. However, Indian secularism has always had a very particular character, which cannot be automatically identified with European models, starting with the French laicité. Rather than neutrality and separation, Indian secularism is based on equal respect and consideration for all religions, which Rajiv Bharghava defined as “distance supported by moral principles.”
A HERITAGE PUT TO THE TEST
This legacy is being tested today. As is well known, the ruling party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – has made a drastic inversion with respect to the Nehruvian identity by imposing a series of saffronisation policies, that is, a gradual reduction of Indian cultural pluralism. The Hindutva ideology, based on the identification between Hindu-ness and Indian-ness, therefore wants to replace the notion of citizen as defined by the Constitution of ’49 with a people defined on a religious basis. This project is supported by a radical reinterpretation of the history of India, which portrays the Muslim minority as the result of “invasions” by foreign populations, and by a simplified narrative of the same religious identity that uncritically assumes the notion of “Hinduism” inherited from the colonialism.
CITIZEN AMENDMENT ACT AND NATIONAL CITIZEN RECORD
The intention to liquidate the heritage of tolerance, inclusiveness and pluralism resulting from the Indian constitutional tradition is manifested in the two legislative initiatives of December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Citizens Record (NCR), which, combined, together outline a framework in which the condition of full citizenship of the Islamic “minority” is seriously compromised.
This sort of anti-pluralist offensive has not failed to arouse a strong wave of opposition and protest, which the Indian scholar Neera Chandhoke defines as a veritable “eruption” of civil society. Unfortunately, we know that the protest then provoked a violent repression by the police forces with heavy suspicions of involvement also of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Rss) – a paramilitary organization expression of Rightwing Hindu nationalism that bloodied the streets of Delhi, causing injuries and death. Despite these dramatic developments, the wave of anti-CAA protests has brought to light new forms of leadership and political activism. Among these, particularly significant was the mobilization of Muslim women who, in the Shaheen Bagh district of Delhi, have maintained a continuous sit-in against the government’s bills in the name of the Constitution for more than two months.
SHAHEEN BAGH’S WOMEN EXPERIENCE
In the pre-COVID era, the Shaheen Bagh experience is extremely significant in many ways. In the first place you are an example of female political subjectivity in which religious identity does not hinder, but you support political mobilization. The women of Shaheen Bagh have mobilized, yes, as Muslims, but in defense of the values of inclusive secularism of the Indian Constitution, thus making an absolutely innovative reappropriation of the vocabulary and symbolism of national identity.
From Shaheen Bagh a real wave of activism developed, which involved the most diverse subjects; particularly interesting for Confronti’s audience is undoubtedly the inter-religious mobilization of solidarity towards the Muslim communities of East Delhi by Sikhs, Hindus and Christians.