The Constitution embodies the idea of India — it enshrines liberty, equality, justice and fraternity. It was B R Ambedkar who insisted for the inclusion of “fraternity” in the document. The Preamble to the Constitution obliges us to promote amongst all citizens fraternity as the means of “assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation”. That is a powerful message but one we have ignored.
The idea of fraternity as a unifying force is not new. The ancient concept of bandhuta is that we are all bound together. The 7th rock edict of Ashoka the Great proclaimed, “All religions reside everywhere”. Swami Vivekananda warned of the dangers of turning away from pluralism and of sectarianism, bigotry and “its horrible descendant, fanaticism”. Rabindranath Tagore, too, despaired of narrow domestic walls. Beethoven and John Lennon imagined a world without borders.
When hatred trumps fraternity, democracy is imperilled. The storming of the Capitol in the US by a mob driven by the big lie that the election had been “stolen”, and incited by the then US President Donald Trump, carries a great lesson for us. Frenzied mobs are rarely spontaneous — their fire is stoked by unseen hands and by a lie drilled into them.
The hallmark of great leadership is promoting fraternity to build unity. This is akin to a conductor who must inspire harmony from the diversity of a hundred instruments in the orchestra, not allowing any one section to drown out others. The whole is then larger than the sum of its parts.
During Partition, both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru confronted, at great personal risk and unpopularity, rampaging and violent mobs, to urge them to stand down. Sadly, their legacy is now vilified. But they understood that India’s future depended on preserving the diversity of its civilisation and that once torn, the fragile fabric of fraternity would be impossible to stitch together again. Try squeezing toothpaste back into the tube!
Yet, in today’s India, life for comedians is considerably more complicated than it is for bigots. The bile spewed by some on Twitter and by politicians in Delhi’s elections last year, is proof that the virus of hatred has infected us.
The abominable “love jihad” laws police love by criminalising conversion for “marriage”, as a result of “allurement” or “inducement” which is defined to include “… gift, gratification, easy money or material benefit …. better lifestyle, divine displeasure or otherwise” in addition to force, coercion and the like. The laws are deliberately vague and over broad. They induce a chilling effect. Who would take the risk of religious conversion in order to marry when that might morph an act of love into a crime?
These laws expose two primal traits that afflict us — exclusion and fear. First, the conjuring of a lynch mob (physical or virtual) to whip up hatred and violence (and sometimes death) against various minorities. It is the exclusion of the target that is the reason for the mob, not its evinced (and usually bogus) purpose. The target is somehow not Indian and is to be ghettoised away from mainstream society.
The second trait is deadlier — fear in the majority who are chilled into being silent accomplices. The public banners put up by the Lucknow administration with photographs and names of those accused of vandalism during the anti-CAA protests endangered these protesters. “Do not protest” was the subliminal message, reminiscent of the unspoken threat to unleash packs of lynching Red Guards upon publicly named “capitalist roaders” (read dissenters).
Kashmir is the current laboratory for de-fraternisation: Mass arrests and detention, some with no charge other than disturbing public order, deportations, suppression of protest, denial of internet access and a new media policy to reward newspapers for repeatedly reporting “a genuinely positive image of the government based on performance” and to deny state advertising to those carrying “fake” or “anti-national” news. Despite the populist 2019 extension of the entire Constitution to Jammu and Kashmir (without the concurrence of any elected body of the erstwhile state), subsequent measures have actually denied basic constitutional rights to Kashmiris, who we seem to forget are all citizens of India. This is a master class in excoriating fraternity, and it is not wise.
The beef ban, “love jihad” laws and the degrading of protestors mark a new and sinister trend of state policy of de-fraternisation. The politics of majoritarianism is built on de-fraternisation of minority sections of society —Muslim, Dalit, liberated women, activists, socialists and intellectuals. Opponents are marginalised by characterising them as “anti-national” (that old favourite) or “Khalistanis”, “tukde-tukde gang” and “Maoists” or with the “my way or highway to Pakistan” ultimatum. Electoral ground is seized by the feint that the majority (deftly equated with Indian) way of life is under siege.
The methods are old. The Nazis brainwashed the Germans with propaganda adopting Joseph Goebbels’s doctrine of the “Big Lie”. They recalibrated the truth and history, demonised the Jews (as being neither German nor human) and accused the Weimar Republic of “appeasement” (yes, that very word). The Germans cravenly allowed themselves to become indoctrinated pawns. The contrived narrative pandered to their prejudices. Even after the Nuremberg citizenship laws were enacted, few in Germany, could forecast where this was leading to. Ultimately, the politics of hate wrought havoc on every German.
With electronic media, the danger of the Big Lie is vastly magnified. And when reporting loses objectivity, it is reduced to propaganda. Viewers, too, cannot shirk responsibility. Those with the strongest opinions usually get their news from a single source and their history and conviction from social media. We don’t question what is fed to us in easy sound bites as long as it feeds our phobias. We do not wish to even listen to, much less comprehend, views that we hate. In an era of unprecedented access to information, there is little thirst for knowledge. That enables the Big Lie.
Many of the real problems threatening humankind such as poverty, global warming, diminishing water resources and pandemics require global solutions, not national, sectarian or local ones. Fracturing communal, national and global fraternities will rebound to harm each one of us. Crafting coalitions and fraternities based on principles, not politics, is the way forward. Build bridges not walls. Vaccine diplomacy might be less popular but may work better than pre-emptive strikes.
The irrepressible spirit of the Indian cricket team that forged a victory at the Gabba is an example of the power of unity in diversity. Drawn from all parts of India and all sections of society, and despite insult and intimidation, they formed a team that triumphed against all odds. On the other hand, the politics of hate would exclude talent. We would also do well to heed the words of US senator, Ben Sasse: “Don’t let the screamers who monetise hate have the final word.”
A house divided cannot stand. The very idea of India and the legacy we leave our children is at stake.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 26, 2021 under the title ‘What binds the nation’. The writer, a senior lawyer at Bombay High Court, is former additional solicitor-general of India and former advocate-general, Maharashtra