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Martyrs Day musings: Our many republics

January 30, 2014 11:02 IST

As we observe Martyrs' Day today, Mahatma Gandhi would have been dismayed by the number of vested interests that are seeking to carve out identities and spaces outside the Republic of India, says Shreekant Sambrani.

An imagined recent Socratic dialogue with the Mahatma:

Bapu, for over two generations, we have observed Republic Day with pomp and circumstance, and followed it up four days later by donning sackcloth and ashes, paying homage to your life of sacrifice and simplicity. Does it strike you as incongruous?

Hardly! First, yes, I led a simple life on the surface (my inner life was a lot more complicated), but that was my choice. I never gave up what was dear to me and used whatever I could afford, so in that sense, made no sacrifices. And as for Republic Day, if I didn't know the value of symbols, who would? I didn't stop Jawahar from moving into the C-in-C's mansion as the prime minister, did I? If rattling sabres leads to fewer occasions to use them, why should I complain?

I'll tell you what bothered me this time, though. Indians now seem to fill many republics, but not necessarily the Republic of India. No, I am not referring to the physical boundaries of India, but rather the concept of the Republic. I could never have imagined the spectacle of a head of a government of an Indian territory going on protest, forsaking his constitutional obligation. That seems to me an indication of his party preferring to remain in its own anarchic republic of street agitations.

But they said that they were following your own path of passive resistance against an oppressive regime.

Ha! That's a good one! First, all my protests, in South Africa and in India, were directed at minority regimes tyrannising majorities against their will. The Governments of India is your own. If it misbehaves, I'm sure the Republic's Founding Fathers have provided ways of bringing it to book, but they don't include abandoning your sworn dharma of upholding the law of your own land. Perhaps these ways are too feeble and take too long, but that, too, can be changed, without resorting to anarchy. How can there be disobedience, civil or otherwise, against your own rule?

Let's not dwell only on this, which I hope will soon pass. I'm bothered by many other republics. Lately, I'm told that the rich of the land have seceded from their surroundings to live in their own grand republics of gated communities in Gurgaon, or Delhi farmhouses, or South Mumbai. When a diplomat broke the law of a country in which she was posted, the entire elite diplomatic establishment rose to defend her, because its republic of privileges and immunities denied to ordinary citizens appeared threatened.

Even though I advocated trusteeship, I never believed all businesses would follow that path. But when some of them seek numerous exceptions from the laws for themselves, they show their preference for occupying spaces outside the Republic. I had wanted the Congress to wither away after Independence, though again, knew that would not happen. I'm saddened to see that the Congress leadership now seems to think that it confers entitlements on Indians. The people are not supplicants -- they possess the rights by virtue of their citizenship! Yet in the Congress republic, they will be beholden to the leaders for their rights.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's splendid republic (in the name of Gandhian socialism, no less!) has little room for pluralities. The communists still nurse dreams of a dictatorship of the proletariat, while their more extreme comrades try to rule over a republic where power flows from the barrel of a gun, not realising that the ballot is mightier than the bullet.

But they all claim that people are with them, they are only following the democratic path.

Don't fall into that trap! Democracy, if it means a simple majority rule, could be oppressive. Didn't it impose untouchability among the Hindus? And left Muslims to live in fear? We need to temper democracy with republican ethos. Plato recorded Socrates (whom I revere) as saying 2,500 years ago, that men are not born self-sufficient or all alike. Hence, the Republic in which they are interdependent is advantageous. The Guardians of the Republic govern wisely with justice and truth as their guiding principles. The Republic is for everybody's benefit, and not for the enjoyment of any one group alone. Our own sages said, ‘Na Vishnuh prithvipati’ (Vishnu is not the material master of the universe).

Take the term you use nowadays, empowerment. You aren't empowered by depriving someone else of their power. I will be provocative: there is no real empowerment unless everyone is empowered.

Plato also said that the constitution of all states is bad and their institutions all but past remedy. Why does this happen and how can we overcome it?

We remain wrapped in our own narrow concerns. When we demand things for ourselves, regardless of its cost to the society, it is duragraha, although we call it satyagraha. My Harilal held a grudge all his life that I didn't let him exploit being my son. As a good bania, I've never appreciated the clamour for free or cheaper things. If you refuse to pay a just price for that which benefits you, you commit theft.

Everyone in Tolstoy and Phoenix farms worked to earn their keep. If the weak or the infirm couldn't, we supported them, but we never said that what belongs to all must be preferentially given to some. I'm glad you now use dharna to describe these efforts to squeeze out concessions, because they aren't satyagrahas.

When our self-interest prevails over all else, we have many republics coming up at the cost of the Republic of India. They are islands that don't communicate with each other. The casualties are truth and justice and institutions of governance, the very foundations of a civilised society.

The solution then lies not in discrediting all institutions, but in reviving and restoring the good ones. We need government, good government. We need police, the guardians of law. They have to function on the basis of mutual respect and not distrust, compassion and not pride. Narsi Mehta said the true Vaishnav feels peed parai (pain of the others) and does not have abhiman. I yearn for these Vaishnav Guardians 700 years later to restore our institutions and the Republic, whose motto still is satyameva jayate.

The writer has been discovering ever-newer facets of the Mahatma and the Republic for half a century.

Shreekant Sambrani