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The villain of the piece is the politics of power

December 07, 2015 11:32 IST

Fali Nariman, one of India's best-known lawyers, tells Aditi Phadnis that plurality of political opinion is the only way to counter intolerance

A mob storming someone's house and lynching him on the basis of rumours about beef stored in the fridge; people killing each other on the road because one vehicle brushed against another; and several instances of mobs watching silently as women are shamed. Is intolerance in India on the rise?

Or is India becoming more tolerant, as the government claims?

Generally speaking, in the Indian subcontinent's history, medieval and modern, its inhabitants were tolerant of one another. Their unexpressed anger was against their rulers - first, the Mughals, and much later, conquerors from the West, whose boast was that in the British Empire "the sun never sets".

But with the passing of the Indian Independence Act, 1947, by Britain's parliament, the resplendent British sun, was by law, made to set! And then with the promulgation of the Constitution of India, 1950, "We, the people" resolved to govern ourselves through elected representatives in Parliament.

By 1945, the Indian National Congress had achieved what it had set out to when it had been founded (in 1885), viz to secure independence for India. Gandhiji had then advised that it should disband itself. The advice went unheeded. In the first general elections after Independence (in 1952), the Congress secured an absolute majority in Parliament, which under the Constitution empowered it to form a one-party government at the Centre.

When did it all begin to go wrong? When did those in power start becoming impatient?

Political power grows by what it feeds on. Thereafter, with similar resounding successes at each general election after every five years, the Congress became, over time, too sure of itself.

Whilst it did suffer due to a contrariety of beliefs and opinions amongst the people, it became progressively intolerant of personal liberties; intolerant also of judicial verdicts by courts against the majority government at the Centre.

The refrain of those in power was: "We have an overwhelming majority to change the Constitution. Let's do it." And they did, (as the poet says) "to remould it nearer to the heart's desire".

But in 1973, a Bench of 13 judges of the Supreme Court -- the largest Bench ever assembled to judge a case -- put a stop to all constitution amendments that violated the Constitution's "basic structure". By this majority ruling, the Supreme Court retained with itself the custody of the Constitution.

This prompted the complaint: "An elected Parliament must be supreme, an unelected court can never be." The response offered was that "neither Parliament nor the country's apex court is supreme -- it is the Constitution that is supreme".

Dissatisfied with this response, and ultimately in some desperation, the majority government of Indira Gandhi -- after she was unseated in Parliament by a judicial verdict in an election petition -- thought it fit to impose an Internal Emergency in June 1975 with the almost complete deprivation of all personal liberties for citizens by the enactment of oppressive laws such as MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act). And there followed a period of administration dominated by "insolent might".

But not for long... The Emergency became intolerable....

But not for long. With the excesses of the Emergency, the people became intolerant of their own government -- one they had repeatedly voted to power. Ultimately, the arrogance of the major political party in power was spiked in 1977, when elections were held shortly after the Emergency was lifted.

After a brief interlude of another super-majority government -- the Janata Party -- which did not last long, and yet another stint of a Congress government that continued till 1989, coalition governments became the norm for the next 20 years or so.

It was during this period that reaching out to other political parties for alliances -- in order to form a stable government -- became the order of the day. This in turn led to a change in attitude of political party leaders: they came down from their high perches, became less fractious, more friendly.

Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, then heading a minority Congress government at the Centre, named Atal Bihari Vajpayee (then leader of the Opposition in Parliament) the head of an Indian delegation to the United Nations. It was Rao who appointed Subramanian Swamy, then a prominent member of the Opposition party in Parliament, chairman of a prestigious trade commission, conferring on him Cabinet rank. Gracious acts befit those wielding power; such acts also help them retain power.

How do you view the relationship between leadership and tolerance; or power and tolerance?

In India ordinary people follow their "leaders" - they do what they do, and when they speak they often reflect the tone and language of their leaders. When governments do good things, the people do likewise. When those in the government speak temperately, the people do the same.

After the 2014 general elections, with the resounding defeat of the Congress and other political parties, all this changed noticeably. The Bharatiya Janata Party, with an absolute majority, romped to power at the Centre.

And then, after a brief lull, there was a repeat of the same old phenomena -- the bogey of an intolerant super-majority government "swinging the lead", as the saying goes -- with a considerable degree of religious intolerance also being exhibited.

There was, and still is, a marked aversion to accepting any opinion contrary to the beliefs and views of the majority political party in power; there was, and still is, the same intolerance with judicial verdicts against the government voted to office. In short it was, and is, the same old story played out all over again, with different actors on the political stage.

Contrary to popular belief, for me the villain of the piece is not any one group of people, but simply the politics of power. It has proved too heady - not once, but repeatedly - for leaders who, only sometime ago, were looked upon as level-headed. When the majority is too large, good people -- and bad -- tend to lose their heads.

Sir William Jones, one of the first judges of the Supreme Court of Calcutta (from 1783 to 1794) - not just a judge, but also a self-taught scholar of ancient India - wrote to a colleague in England words that we must never forget: "My opinion is that power should always be distrusted, in whatever hands it is placed."

Is there a single answer -- a silver bullet, if you will -- to make India a place where all points of view can be heard?

I believe that in God's good time we will revert to the spirit of tolerance and of accommodation - but only when governments at the Centre accept with grace persons, opinions, views and habits they do not agree with.

However, this will only happen when Parliament and politics are no longer dominated by a single political party at the Centre. Only then will India become a country where all points of view are freely expressed, freely heard and equally freely, tolerated.