As India celebrates Republic Day, and the chests of millions of Indians swell with pride at the thought of our immense diversity and imagined military prowess, it is well to reflect on what kind of Republic the country has become. A republican form of government is not merely one in which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch; rather, the modern republic rests on the idea that sovereignty resides in the people, and that the will of the people, as expressed through their representatives, is supreme.
What has, however, been critical to the idea of the ‘republic’ everywhere is the notion of inclusiveness. In this respect, the stories that have been coming out of India in recent years tell a tale that is chilling to the bones, a tale which leaves behind a stench that no amount of sloganeering about ‘Swachh Bharat’ or even something more than a symbolic wielding of the broom can eradicate.
If inclusiveness is the touchstone of a Republic, what is characteristic of India today is how increasingly large constituencies are being excluded from the nation? Muslims and Dalits have been hounded, garrotted, and lynched; the working class is being trampled upon; the Adivasi is nothing more than an obstacle course for a mining company. None of this is news, some might argue; perhaps things have only become worse. Such a view is profoundly mistaken because whatever India may have been in the past, it has never been, certainly not to the extent it is today, a Republic of Inhospitality.
There are other ways, too, of understanding the pass at which we have arrived. On his last day of office some months ago, the Vice President, Hamid Ansari, warned that Muslims were feeling increasingly insecure in India and that there was a corrosion of Indian values. His successor, Venkaiah Naidu, was dismissive of these remarks and shot back, “Some people are saying minorities are insecure. It is a political propaganda. Compared to the entire world, minorities are more safe and secure in India and they get their due.” What Naidu, and the Prime Minister, who likewise took a dig at the departing Vice President, failed to understand was Ansari’s unease at the fact that India no longer seemed a hospitable place to him. India does not even remotely feel like a hospitable place to the Africans who have been set upon by mobs or to those from the Northeast who have been humiliated and killed since they seem too much like the Chinese—aliens all.
More than anything else, India has long been a land of hospitality. I use the word hospitality with deliberation and with the awareness that our present crop of middle-class Indians who study hotel management and business administration with gusto will assume that I am speaking of the ‘hospitality industry’. There is a different story to be told here about how some of the richest words in the English language have been hijacked for the narrowest purposes. I use hospitality in the place of tolerance since both the right and the left have demonstrated their intolerance for ‘tolerance’. To liberals and the left in India, all discussion of Hindu tolerance is merely a conceit and at worst a license to browbeat others into submission. Surprisingly, but perhaps not, the advocates of Hindutva are equally unenthusiastic about proclaiming the virtues of ‘Hindu tolerance’. It was Hindu tolerance that, in their view, made the Hindus vulnerable to the depredations of foreign invaders. ‘Hindu tolerance’ is only for the weak and the effete.
What, then, does it mean to speak of the culture of hospitality that has long characterized India and that is eroding before our very eyes, turning this ancient land into a most inhospitable place not only for foreign tourists, African students, and the various people of northeast India but even for the greater majority of its own citizens?
We may take as illustrative of this culture of hospitality three narratives that are humbling in their complex simplicity. There is a story that is often told about the coming of the Parsis to India, although some doubt its veracity. As they fled Iran, so the story goes, they were stopped on the border as they sought to make their way into India. The Indian king already had far too many people in his dominions and could not accommodate any more refugees. The cup was full. The Parsis are said to have responded, ‘We shall be like the sugar that sweetens the cup of tea.’
Those who wish to make the story plausible will offer dates and there may be mention of the political dynasty that prevailed in Western India in the 8th century with whom the first batch of Parsis would have come into contact. The story may well be apocryphal, though if that is the case it is wholly immaterial: its persistence suggests something not only about the tenor of those times but the continuing attractiveness of the idea that those who came to India have each, in their own fashion, sweetened the pot and added something to the country.
But there may have been many other registers of hospitality in India, as Tagore sought to explain to his audience on a visit to China. The Mahsud, a Pathan tribe inhabiting the South Waziristan Agency in what is now the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan, were being bombed from the air. A plane crash-landed in one of the villages; the pilot was trying, not very successfully, to lift himself out of the plane which was already on fire. Though the villagers had been plummeted by this very pilot, they ran to the plane and lifted him out of the cockpit; he was wounded, but they nursed him back to health, and some weeks later he made his way back to England.
It was a culture indeed an ideal of hospitality, and their notion of dharma, that made the villagers act as they did; however, as Tagore tellingly adds, their behavior was “the product of centuries of culture” and was “difficult of imitation.”
Though Nehru shepherded the country after independence, it was Mohandas Gandhi more than anyone else who was committed to the constituent idea of the Republic that is inclusivity and what I have described as hospitality. It is, therefore, fitting that my last story should end with him.
Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, but he often had visitors to the ashram who were accustomed to having meat at nearly every meal. He took it upon himself to ensure that they were served meat; and he also adhered to the view that if he had insisted that they conform to the rules of the ashram and confine themselves to vegetarian food, he would be visiting violence upon them. Although reams and reams have been written upon his notion of ahimsa, little has been said of how hospitality was interwoven into his very notion of nonviolence.
And, yet, it is in this very India that Muslims and Dalits have been killed on the mere suspicion of eating, hoarding, and transporting beef. How precipitous has been the decline of India into a Republic of Inhospitality!