Prime Minister’s conception of unity springs from the goal of the RSS to militarise Indian society

New Delhi, Ajaz Ashraf(Scroll): Underlying the Modi government’s conception of National Unity Day are three defining principles, each designed to mould the national consciousness and alter political behaviour, and presaging a future grimmer than today. In choosing to observe the National Unity Day on the birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Modi government has turned the doyen of the freedom struggle into a symbol of regressive and reactionary politics.

Prime Minister’s conception of unity springs from the goal of the RSS to militarise Indian society

The first of these principles seeks to turn citizens into quiescent subjects of the Indian state, lulling them into believing it can do no wrong. The second principle aims to exploit the paranoia of people to foster the culture of vigilantism. The third imposes a territorial meaning on the word “unity”, which is to be no longer forged, as was earlier, through a coming together of people.

No less perturbing is the pressure tactics the Modi government has employed to compel citizens to observe the National Unity Day. For instance, the University Grants Commission and the Central Board of Secondary Educations have issued a flurry of letters to institutes affiliated to them. These demand they must observe the National Unity Day. A university or school head can flout such missives only at his or her peril.

Indeed, the Unity Day pledge provides us an insight into the Modi government’s mindset. Read the two sentences excerpted from it: “I solemnly pledge that I dedicate myself to preserve the unity, integrity and security of the nation and also strive hard to spread this message among my fellow countrymen… I also solemnly resolve to make my own contribution to ensure internal security of my country.” (The missing sentence from the pledge links the idea of unity to Patel’s vision.)

Another recent pledge

This pledge follows the one the nation took on October 2, marking the inauguration of the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan. Both these pledges admit, rather unwittingly, the state’s failure in keeping the country clean and ensuring internal security. It wouldn’t have otherwise asked the people to contribute their mite to overcome the two festering problems.

However, might we not ask: isn’t the country’s insanitary, unhygienic condition a consequence of the state’s apathy, its callous indifference to the environment in which we live? Is it not possible that the armed resistance to the state is largely a reaction to its deeply flawed policies? Isn’t a change in state behavior the nation’s pressing need?

The Unity pledge precludes us from interrogating the state. It implicitly demands we accept state behaviour as is. The change we want to see around us is not predicated on the state reforming itself. It is we the people who must alter our behaviour. Therefore, it follows, however perverse it may sound, that it isn’t the government alone that should be blamed for the state’s failings. The fault is as much ours.

For sure, citizens conscious of not littering lighten the municipality’s burden, but this is a simplistic approach to the gargantuan environmental problems, such as industrial pollution, we face. Nevertheless, it is infinitely easier to desist from throwing garbage outside our houses than it is to contribute to internal security. How might we do it?

Surveillance society

Spy on our neighbours, dub as enemies of the state those whose worldviews are different from ours or whose sight we have an irrational hatred for, and pick up the gun or the sword or the good old lathi? Does our contribution to internal security entail praising, and assisting, the state as it abrogates human rights, incarcerates the innocent, and kills suspects in encounters staged to circumvent the legal process?

Make no mistake, the Unity pledge is tailored to foster the culture of vigilantism, which is perhaps as old as the history of post-Independent India. Will not the pledge become a justification for vigilante groups such as the dreaded Salwa Judum to mushroom and launch operations? Go ask the Kashmiris about the depredations of the Ikhwans, the surrendered militants whom the state armed and supported to crush terrorism.

In this context, it is advisable to recall the order of the Supreme Court declaring as illegal and unconstitutional the appointment of tribals as Special Police Officers during the time Salwa Judum existed. The order noted, “Even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, that indeed the SPOs were effective against Maoists/Naxalites, the doubtful gains are accruing only by the incurrence of a massive loss of fealty to the Constitution, and damage to the social order.”

But preservation of social order and harmony isn’t quite the Sangh Parivar’s favourite idea. This is precisely why the Modi government conceived of holding his National Unity Day a good 19 days before an ostensibly similar, but in reality a competing, idea was to be celebrated. On the Indian calendar, November 19 is marked as the National Integration Day, which coincides with the birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated, yes, on October 31.

The juxtaposition of Unity and Integration isn’t coincidental or innocent. The two terms represent two different streams of thought. Though the National Integration Day was celebrated for the first time on November 19, 1985, perhaps as a lame, typically cynical, attempt of the Congress to atone for its role in triggering the ant-Sikh riots of 1984, the idea and meaning of integration dates back to 1961.

This was the year in which Nehru convened the National Integration Conference to brainstorm on the methods of managing the tension between an individual’s national identity and his or her affinity to religious, caste, linguistic and regional groups. It wasn’t his idea to efface the markers of primordial identities, or to neutralise their pull, but to blend them together into the larger, composite Indian personality.

It was a celebration, so to speak, of the idea of “unity in diversity”. In this sense, the National Integration Day is people-oriented, seeking as it does to unite India through the banding together of Indians despite their many differences. India is united because its diverse people are integrated.

By contrast, the National Unity Day focuses on internal security – and, therefore, on threats to India’s territorial integrity emanating from within. In this concept of unity the role of the people is marginal, unless they contribute to internal security, the maintenance of which is the state’s responsibility. How might they contribute? Obviously, through their steadfast opposition to the state’s wide array of rivals – not only secessionists, Maoists, terrorists, but also civil society groups challenging the state to be sensitive to the poor; in fact, anyone whose politics demands a change in state behaviour.

Delusional idea

The Unity pledge is delusional, imagines the past as present. In linking the pledge to the vision of Sardar Patel, the Modi government caricatures him. His uniting of India was in the context of over 550 princely states dreaming of becoming independent. But most of them willingly acceded to India, not least because of a little nudge from Lord Mountbatten, and popular pressure the Congress mounted on them.

There were largely five principalities – Bhopal, Travancore, Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir – that nurtured pretensions to independence. Of these, Hyderabad witnessed police action, and Kashmir saw the Indian army tackle the Pakistani raiders. The rest were persuaded to refrain from precipitous action. Statecraft isn’t just about guns and bullets, Sardar Patel so deftly demonstrated.

The Modi government’s conception of unity is linked to the RSS’s vision than the Sardar’s. It springs from the Sangh’s goal to militarise Indian society, evident from RSS activists at their shakhas mimicking military drills. Its provenance can also be traced to the declaration of RSS sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar, “The non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and language … must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizens’ rights.”

The idea of integration cannot but be anathema to the votaries of Golwalkar’s ideology. It is their ideas and actions – love jihad, for instance – which, to a good measure, threatens to imperil the country’s internal security. After such knowledge, what unity pledge?

Editor’s Note: Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His book The Hour Before Dawn will be published by HarperCollins in December.