By Pratap Bhanu Mehta
There may be growing discontent with the Narendra Modi government. The Opposition is still far from fully capitalising on it. It will have to do several things: Project unity, craft an alternative programme and get the organisational act in order. But one thing that the Congress party needs to do is to liberate itself from important elements of its own recent past. A good place to start would be by asking a simple question: Is the party that battled for India’s freedom ready to bat for maximum protections for individual freedom that a liberal democracy should afford?
Will the Congress, to differentiate itself from the BJP in legal and institutional terms, sign on to a new Charter of Freedom that provides more safeguards to individuals than the Congress has historically provided. Just think of the range of laws that exist on our books that are a scandal for a liberal democracy: Sedition laws, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, anti conversion laws, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, laws restricting freedom of expression including criminal defamation, cow protection laws that give invasive powers to the state. This list could go on. These laws require to be repealed, or at any rate, need massively more safeguards than they currently provide.
One can also pick laws from several other areas. These laws are also undergirded by institutions like the police whose functioning needs radical reform. Whenever these laws are used by the state, parties protest on a case by case basis, reminding us what is wrong with these laws in the first place; they give the state too much right to withhold our liberty or grant it to us as an act of noblesse oblige.
There are other significant differences between the Congress and the BJP. But it bears repeating that the most chilling fact is that the BJP has not really needed to invent any new laws to facilitate state control, when it wants. If anything, irony of ironies, in places like the Northeast, it has positioned itself by tempering laws like AFSPA. At this juncture in India’s history, it is bad faith to say, we will comment on a case by case basis when it suits us, but will leave the legal structure of state interdiction intact.
This, for example, is exactly what is happening in the recent use of UAPA against lawyers and activists. Why is it important for the Congress to propose a new Charter of Freedom, and articulate it in institutional terms? First, it will be a decisive signal that the Congress has learnt from its mistakes, and is willing to shed the burden of the past. Perhaps it was the exigencies of Partition, but the fact is that the Congress became unconscionably statist when it came to civil liberties. It started with the debate over the First Amendment where Jawaharlal Nehru was on the wrong side of history. The Congress needs to come clean if it is to be a more effective critic of authoritarianism. This does not just apply to civil liberties. It also applies to a whole range of other institutional spaces. Anyone minimally acquainted with the history of higher education, for example, still cannot, with a straight face, accept the Congress’ protestations over university autonomy.
Second, the Congress and Rahul Gandhi are misdiagnosing why they are struggling. The problem is not that they were perceived to be anti-Hindu. The problem was two-fold. They could not consistently apply an individual rights standard across communities and ended up making rights a competition between communities. But the deeper problem was the real lack of courage when it comes to defending civil liberties. Rahul Gandhi’s main challenge in projecting leadership is not personal niceness or generosity. He also does not have a record of governance, as a minister or chief minister. He needs recourse to positions that can show that he has courage, the ability to lead from the front rather than to follow.
But even with newly acquired energy, that element of leading from the front still remains an open question. Has the inner working of the party really been reformed? If the party showed courage and categorically came out in favour of a new Charter of Freedom, it would show a courage of conviction. It would speak to young people, powerfully. The Punjab “blasphemy” law episode is disconcerting precisely for this reason: Not only is the Congress not batting for freedom and creating a dangerous precedent, it also casts doubt on Rahul Gandhi’s ability to bend the party towards the arc of liberty, if liberty is understood in institutional terms.
It is one thing to shed an anti-Hindu image; it is quite another to cave in to those who want to coddle religion, and that line is still not bright enough in the Congress party. Third, one of the worries about what a second term for Narendra Modi might mean is articulated in terms on what it might mean for institutions. So, part of a counter has to be that the Opposition is ready for a new institutional narrative. It will not let a politics of fear legitimise statism that puts personal liberty at risk.
It is ready to say: Minimum government, maximum governance, as currently used, is a hollow slogan. If minimum government means anything, it means the most in areas of personal and civil liberty. The Supreme Court has struck a resounding blow on behalf of freedom in Navtej Johar, and it is to the Congress’ credit that it has welcomed the judgement, and not hidden behind the evasions and silences of the ruling party. But the broader defence of personal liberty, the freedom to speak, the freedom to choose one’s religion, what one eats, the freedom to protest, protection against detention without being charged for up to six months, all require more robust legal protections.
They also require, if they are to be credible, better police and courts, whose due processes can make a mockery of the best laws. It is also a mistake to think that a strong legal system and better policing are only elite issues. Quite the contrary, the poor face the greatest brunt of their dysfunction. More than shibboleths on Nehru and Gandhi, the India of tomorrow requires a new Charter of Freedom. Will any party serve the cause of justice by trying to occupy that space?
A world of meaning in the name Ashok
By Gopa lkrishna Gandhi
We bear the names we bear forever. They are us, our identity. And yet they are the one thing about us we are not responsible for. They have, after all, been thought of, chosen for us by those who have named us — our guardians, parents, grandparents. In fact, by our generations.
And they have been determined by current trends, styles, preferences.
Ashok, as a name, is now passé. This is not said statistically but impressionistically. The school in New Delhi where I studied in the 1950s had many Ashoks in it. My own class of some thirty had three, one of them, Ashok Dilwali, being one of India’s greatest photographers today. In the class of a hundred where I teach today, there is not one Ashok. Nor, for that matter, in the university itself — of 1,400 students.
It could be just a ‘vogue’ thing. Ashoka as a name does not appeal any more.
But, first, to look at the naming of the first Ashoka.
The rock inscription at Maski in Raichur, Karnataka, discovered in 1915 by C. Beadon, a British gold-digger, that first shone a light on his name and honorifics, calls him: Devanamapiyasa Ashokasa. The one in Gujjara, Datia, Madhya Pradesh gives it more fully: Devanamapiya Piyadasi Ashokalaja.
Devanamapiya (Beloved to the Gods) and Piyadasi (Dear to Behold) are obviously names that he acquired during his regnal years. But Ashoka, meaning ‘One Without Sorrow’, obviously, was given to him by his family. Legend says, by his mother.
Generations of Indians named their sons and daughters after him.
Daughters? The ‘a’ ending in Ashoka when pronounced ‘aa’ acquires the feminine gender as in the case of the noble Ashoka Gupta (1912-2008). And she certainly did more than anyone can to stem sorrow. Born to the writer, Jyotirmoyee Devi, and Kiron Chandra Sen, Ashokadi was a freedom fighter and rescuer of women victims of the genocide in Noakhali. Later, she did more than any woman I know in our times to alleviate sorrow and distress among neglected and exploited women and girls through the Mahila Seva Samity that she founded. Jawaharlal Nehru was a student of history before he was a maker of his destiny. His daughter, Indira Priyadarshini, known to history as Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), invokes the Mauryan’s title. I do not think her father could have conjured that name without the Ashokan nomenclature in his mind.
Until a few decades ago, boys in Gujarat used to be quite frequently named Ashok. The first ‘Gujarati Ashok’ who comes to my mind is Asoka Mehta (1911-1984). The great socialist was born to the distinguished thinker, historical-novelist and writer, the short-lived Ranjitram Vavabhai Mehta (1881-1917), who is specially remembered for his as yet untranslated Gujarati novel, Ahmed Rupande, about a Hindu girl marrying a Muslim boy. And as the Gujarati litterateur, Tridip Suhrud, has unravelled, this Asoka’s mother was Shanta. Perhaps she it is who named him. A founding member of the Congress Socialist Party, Asoka Mehta kept a certain distance from Jawaharlal Nehru but accepted, curiously, a rather light ministerial office under Indira Gandhi. The other eminent ‘Gujarati Ashok’ is Ashok Desai (b. 1942), the distinguished barrister and former attorney general of India, whose appearance in Sakharam Binder famously led to the striking down of State pre-censorship of dramatic performances.
More recently, his advocacy in Nandini Sundar led the court to pass defining orders on the dilemma that surrounds the crossfire between violent Naxalites and vigilante groups supported by the State.
India’s other end, Bengal, has also had notable Ashoks.
Ashok Kumar (1911-2001), the great film star, was not Ashok to start with. His lawyer father, Kunjlal Ganguly, and mother, Gauridebi, named him Kumudlal but Bollywood renamed him Ashok. Not a bad idea that, for Kumudlal and Devika Rani would not have quite clicked as a pair in Achhut Kanya (1936). Ashok Mitra (1928-2018), a pre-eminent Marxist economist and political leader, was Indira Gandhi’s chief economic adviser, being succeeded there by Manmohan Singh, and then Jyoti Basu’s finance minister for 10 years. Ashokbabu’s acuity was matched only by his acerbic tongue, be it in explaining a nuance of economic policy or analysing recent history.
We are fortunate to have amidst us today, another ‘Bengali Ashok’, the theoretical physicist, Ashoke Sen FRS (b. 1956). His parents, Anil Kumar Sen (himself a former professor of physics), and Gauridebi, chose for their son a name from history over another from the world of science. Working in the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad and recipient, in 2012, of the world’s biggest science award, the Fundamental Physics Prize (three million dollars), Ashoke Sen is working on the ‘string theory’. I do not know and (given my cerebral limitations) can never know what the ‘string theory’ means.
But I am sure Ashoke Sen knows that in the city — Allahabad — where he and his wife, the physicist Sumathi Rao, live, is situated one of Emperor Ashoka’s most famous pillar edicts. And the life-career of this pillar contains what may be called its own ‘string theory’ — about a string of historic vandalisms.
The Ashoka pillar at Allahabad was used as a writing slate in the 4th century CE by Samudragupta of the Gupta Empire to write his own panegyrics in Sanskrit, describing himself as ‘Parakrama’ and the owner of a body which (in D.R. Bhandarkar’s English rendering) was “most charming, being covered over by the plenteous beauty of the marks of hundreds of promiscuous scars, caused by battle-axes, arrows, spikes… and many other weapons” received during his wars and conquests, including those of the south of India. The Great Gupta’s space-snatch was followed by that of the Grand Moghul, Jahangir. In beautiful Persian, this one was carved — jabbed, one should say — by the then Prince Salim’s favourite calligrapher, Qalam, to describe, in vainglory, Moghul lineage and a visit in 1575 to the sangam, of Akbar’s minister, Birbal. Actually, it does worse than Samudragupta’s engraver. It superscribes this right onto Ashoka’s text. It overwrites, by cutting its usurping text with cynical contempt on the Ashokan Edicts III and IV in the original Ashokan Brahmi. Qalam did not know — could not have known — what that Pillar Edict III says in Magadhi Prakrit. It says: “The following lead to sin — fierceness (candiye), harshness (nithuliye), anger (kodhe), pride (mane), envy (isya).” But if Jahangir had come to know it, he is unlikely to have been impressed.
Ashoka’s pillar in Allahabad became just a surface for others to try to immortalise themselves on.
And now, not on the pillar but on the city that hosts it comes the latest ‘bead’ on the ‘string’ of gratuitous replacements, displacements — the re-naming of Allahabad as Prayagraj. No one contested the place of Prayagraj in our psyche, least of all Allahabad. But there it is: Allahabad out, scratched out. Prayagraj scratched in.
This is not how it used to be.
The Republic of India adopted Ashoka’s lion capital for its national emblem. It adopted his ‘chakra’ for the central motif of its national flag. Its first president, Rajendra Prasad, renamed the Ball Room of Rashtrapati Bhavan as Ashok Hall. And the nation’s ‘peacetime equivalent of the Param Vir Chakra, awarded for the most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent valour or self-sacrifice other than in the face of the enemy’ is named the Ashoka Chakra — hugely imaginative!
The future of Ashoka’s heritage in India calls for concern.
For a certain kind of politician the Pillar Edict III quoted above will have no effect. And the following edicts of Ashoka would be a no-go: “It is verily concord of all religions that is meritorious (shamavaye va shadhu).” (Rock Edict XII)
“King Priyadarsin reverences persons of all sects… But the one root is the guarding of one’s speech so as to avoid the extolling of one’s own religion to the decrying of the religion of the other.” (Rock Edict XII)
“For upholding the dhamma I shall send once in every five years a class of officers who are not harsh (akhakhase), not cruel (achande), and are of gentle disposition (sakhinalambhe).” (Kalinga Edict I)
And he is most unlikely to name his son Ashok.
Vikramaditya, yes, or Harsha, Kanishka, Ranjit, Pratap.
As one may say in Tamil-English — chance-ay-ille.
Amit Shah more powerful than Advani ever was
By D.K. SINGH
“Who is Amit Shah?” ran the headlines when he was appointed BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh on 19 May 2013. Then-BJP president Rajnath Singh was on the defensive, arguing that it was “not a crime” to appoint Shah, an accused in an alleged fake encounter case at that time.
Two thousand days later – the landmark reached last Sunday – the rise of Amit Shah in Indian politics has been phenomenal, one of the rare instances of a political non-entity (outside the home state) making it so big on the national political scene in such a short time. Not many BJP presidents could claim to have the kind of aura and clout across the country that he has. Union ministers start shivering when they are called for a meeting with Shah ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle. In the past, many of them got news of their sacking from him only.
After Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, the only BJP president who is in so much demand among party candidates for campaigning in their constituencies is Amit Shah.
It’s quite an achievement for a leader who had been in jail for three months – in connection with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case – and who got out on bail in 2010 only to be told by the Supreme Court to stay out of Gujarat and given time till the next morning to leave the state. Few noticed him when he would get in and out of the Gujarat Bhawan where he stayed in the national capital.
Arun Jaitley, the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha at that time, was chatting with a few journalists in his chamber in Parliament one afternoon in 2013 when a bearded man entered and touched his feet. He had got relief from the apex court in one of the cases. The journalists present there recognised Shah but he wasn’t important enough for them to digress from an interesting conversation with the senior opposition leader.
Shah has come a long way since then. The last 2000 days have been a period of metamorphosis for him: from a reticent, seemingly unambitious state minister whose personal and political life appeared doomed after his incarceration in connection with fake encounter cases into a confident and outspoken BJP president who is now seen as the alter ego of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Another Vajpayee-Advani jodi is in the making as Modi makes a conscious attempt to model himself on the former prime minister, an RSS pracharak who rose over divisive ideology and politics to become a darling of the people as a ‘vikas purush’ or development man. Whether by design or default, Amit Shah is also taking after Advani of yore, a ‘loh purush’ who takes the hard line on issues perceived to be dear to Hindus.
When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat raised the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue in Delhi on 19 September, Shah ignited a debate on the same subject the next day at a book launch in the national capital. The BJP president has described Bangladeshi “infiltrators” as termites and made Assam’s National Register of Citizens a testimony of the party’s stance against illegal immigrants (read Muslims).
Soon, there will be a BJP government in Bengal and no one will dare stop Durga Puja or Saraswati Puja, he roared in West Bengal, referring to the Trinamool Congress government’s restrictions on idol immersion last year. In the run-up to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, he promised to ban slaughterhouses and liberate people “from the fear of Atiq Ahmad, Mukhtar Ansari and Afzal Ansari”. There are instances galore of how Shah doesn’t miss an opportunity to project himself as a hardline Hindutva proponent a la L.K. Advani.
Those who knew Shah in his early days in Gujarat say that he always held strong views although he didn’t articulate them publicly. He was a votary of a powerful state. Those old-timers also recall how difficult it was for the Congress to open its election office in Sarkhej assembly constituency from where Shah contested 2007 assembly election. He used to be a soft-spoken leader then, without any tinge of bitterness in his voice.
He is a changed man now. The ruling party he heads has perfected the art of using the instruments of the state while he has become unapologetic about his and his party’s pro-Hindu credentials. Opposition candidates find it more challenging to stay in the electoral game.
Shah is arguably more powerful today than what Advani was during the Vajpayee regime. Much of Advani’s larger public persona could be attributed to his image as a hardline Hindu leader and a Ram Mandir crusader. Shah can’t reach that status now even if he travels down that path. But the times are different now. Shah doesn’t need to.
Pakistan-A state in denial
By Saad Hafiz
Pakistan living in a state of denial of its extremist problem is old news. Religious extremists who are in the ascendancy hold the country by the jugular. They are allowed freedom to dictate their regressive agenda and demonise the most vulnerable in society on the back of black laws. This state of affairs seems evident to everyone, but to Pakistanis themselves.
The reaction of the state to extremist provocations now follows a predictable pattern. Initially with fierce rhetoric on ensuring the writ of the state, then meek surrender to extremist demands. We saw this absurd approach during the recent standoff on the Aasia Bibi acquittal. The state, through its defeatist response, essentially rewarded the extremists for their belligerence and intransigence.
The highly inflammatory, anti-army and anti-judiciary statements from radical clerics that incited the people to violence — uttered by anyone else — would have invited the full wrath of the state. Calling for the removal of the army chief and threats to judges of the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister are treasonable offenses. The army brass and intelligence apparatus are very tough with persons who question state policies. Non-Punjabi nationalist politicians, members of the press and civil society have found this out to their cost.
The coddling of religious extremists is an insane policy. It has plagued Pakistan from very early in its creation. The country has already paid a high price for using extremists as assets and proxies. The army, but also desperate politicians are guilty of this self-serving and myopic policy. It has contributed to a general lack of respect for law and order, domestic terrorism and poor relations with neighbours.
The extremists are adept at exploiting the divide between state and society. Their simple solution to complex social, economic and political problems is music to many. An effective extremist tactic is to accuse state institutions and individuals to religious and moral corruption. They demand the purification of Islam from corrupt western practices adopted by the ruling elite. And harping on about foreign conspiracies and agendas is part of their strategy.
Overall, Islamist political parties continue to perform moderately in elections, most recently in 2018, garnering around 10 percent of the national vote. However, the radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — led by clerics of the Barelvi sect — emerged as the top fifth religious party by vote bank in Sind and Punjab. The TLP is prominent in confronting the state on multiple occasions to further their extremist agenda.
The nexus of religion and politics has picked up a quick pace in Pakistan. The Islamist lobby is imposing their hard line views on religious freedoms and civil liberties. As a result, we can see the curtailing of personal freedoms and subordination of the role of women and minorities.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has also impacted the nature of politics in the country. Pakistan is being transformed into a hard-line Sunni Muslim state. Left on its own, the country’s small but vibrant civil society, active media, and established political parties are unable to halt the extremist advance on their own.
A chilling fact is that extremist ranks include young people from all social, economic and educational backgrounds. Endemic corruption and oligarchic control of the public sphere drives those disadvantaged by this system to look to Islam for salvation. The youth is particularly affected as the public debate is far removed from rationality and justice and more to the acceptance of a linear ideology.
It is too easy to equate the worldwide phenomenon of extremism to the rise of extremism in Pakistan. Firstly, Pakistani extremism has enjoyed state connivance to grow into a Frankenstein monster it is today. Secondly, unlike most stable democracies, the country’s constitutional and democratic institutions are arguably not strong enough to withstand the extremist onslaught. Thirdly, the extremists want to capture state power, which will have dire consequences.
Pakistan is losing the battle to balance religious tradition with the social, economic and political demands of the modern world. There is little support for a separation between religion and the state. Even fewer people see value in the idea that religion is and should be strictly a private matter.
Every country is entitled to create its favoured methods of governance. But Pakistan should allow its young people the opportunity to study the merits of liberal democracy and secularism. Just harking back for solutions from the golden age of Islam isn’t enough for a well-rounded education.
Perhaps the best antidote to extremism is to encourage free thinking and open inquiry. This progression seems the only way forward to pull Pakistanis out of the powerful grip of religious extremism.
It isn’t clear whether the generals and the civilian apparatus will ever find the will to turn back the extremist wave. They are perhaps afraid that dealing harshly with religious extremists could engulf the country as a whole. But to do nothing and stay a state in denial could mean the end of Pakistan itself.
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