REPORT ON THE ‘IDEA OF INDIA’ ROUND TABLE IN MUMBAI
The first Idea of Idea Conclave outside Delhi was organized in Mumbai on July 22, 2014 by ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy) and other concerned citizens. The conclave made it possible for various citizens, movements and groups to come together and discuss their idea(s) of India and what could be done to translate those into action.
The day began with Harsh Mander’s introductory address where he pointed out the extent to which the 2014 elections caused a deep fissure among the people of the country; a division of an unprecedented scale and nature was created between those who rejoiced at Modi’s victory and those who felt a grave sense of despair at the same. While the victorious sections include the middle class, the corporates and those who subscribe to a majoritarian ideology in general, the ‘social losers’ of the elections were the secular community, minorities (religious, sexual etc) and the country’s poor who cannot even afford the luxury of middle-class aspirations. In this context then, Mander continued, it becomes important for all these sections to come together and discuss their idea of India with each other. He explained that the idea behind the Conclave is to build a platform for concerned citizens not just in Delhi but across the country and to deliberate among other things, on the vision of creating a “just, caring and responsible State.”
The first panel on Changed Political Scenario and Impact on Democratic Civil Rights Movements was chaired by Anjali Monteiro and had Dilip D’Souza, Anand Patwardhan and Teesta Setalvad as panelists.
Dilip D’Souza, writer and journalist, began on an optimistic note as he argued that the current political scenario is in fact an opportunity for the secular and liberal forces of the country to be more active and spell out an idea or vision of India based on values of secularism and social justice. He said that there is reason for “people like us” to feel more empowered because of the accountability that the government now owes and the increased scrutiny it faces. He made it clear that Modi’s victory does not or should not put a stop to our struggles and should urge us to overcome a sense of complacency that had set in, in the past few years.
Anand Patwardhan, documentary filmmaker, argued that even though the government has so far not carried out its communal project on a large scale (even though it has maintained a deafening silence on acts of communal violence such as the murder of Mohsin Shaikh in Pune), it has taken certain steps that point out the severity of the combination of economic neo-liberalism and right wing authoritarianism that the BJP is. These include the BJP’s emphasis on privatization and loss of sovereignty through measures like 100 % FDI in defence and media and facilitating land and resource acquisition by large corporates. It has also granted impunity to those accused of hate crimes and Amit Shah’s rise is just one of the examples of the same. He argued further that the new government has been able to strengthen structures of both state and extra constitutional censorship that threaten the publishing industry (Wendy Doniger, Shekhar Bandopadhyay and Megha Kumar are some of the examples), films and various forms of art and culture. He concluded with the need to speak out (even through smaller publications, internet etc) and the absolute requirement to form alliances.
Teesta Setalwad, civil rights activist, urged the audience to think about a range of issues that predate Modi’s victory such as the “hollowing out” of terms like ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’, which need to be reclaimed and reimagined, keeping in mind the contradictions of our political system where the UPA has also not been in a position to boast of a clean record. She argued that the challenges before the secular forces have definitely strengthened after May 16 but they had always been there, and that they cannot be countered till we articulate the contradictions and dualities of our political system in our strategy and protest.
The second panel on Safeguarding Idea of India was chaired by Dolly Thakore and had Darryl D’ Monte, Vivek Korde, Nandita Das, Mahesh Bhatt and Fr.Frazer Mascernhas as panelists.
Darryl D’Monte, environment activist raised some questions pertinent to the “ecological identity of India”. He spoke, among other things, of the (in)famous IB Report that labels the likes of Green Peace and Amnesty as ‘anti-national’ but obviously remains silent on the foreign funds procured by the RSS and its sister organizations. He concluded, by pointing out that people across the country are fighting against the appropriation of resources and that gives us hope and space for resistance.
Nandita Das, actor, questioned the very notion of having a singular ‘Idea of India’, given the diverse and multifarious nature of the ‘Indian Nation’. She said that we need to rethink what it means to be Indian in the current context and cautioned against the dangers of creating a monolithic Indian identity.
Mahesh Bhatt, filmmaker, brought in a touch of the personal as he spoke about his mother’s struggle to conceal her Muslim identity after the partition and the difficulties he faced as a filmmaker to bring out films that were ‘against the stream’. He mentioned the youth’s increasing tendency to be okay with “progress without freedom” and “development without democracy” which should be looked at and addressed, in the context of the shrinking space for dissent.
Vivek Korde, activist, engaged at length with the term ‘secularism’, its origin, meaning and the way in which it has been twisted and made notorious by the Hindu Right. He said that our biggest failure today is that we have failed to explain to a common person on the street what secularism really means and entails. He argued that at the heart of secularism, lies the spirit to free the people from all kinds of oppression and suppression.
Fr. Frazer, Principal, St. Xaviers College, spoke of three values as being important to his idea of India. These were- Democracy, Plurality and Inclusiveness, which he said, should figure in our approach towards development.
The third session called Building Secular Political Alliance was chaired by Kumar Ketkar and the panelists were Prakash Reddy, Yusuf Abrahani, Mahendra Singh and Hiren Gandhi.
Prakash Reddy, from CPI, stressed on the need to create alliances with other political parties, inspite of other political differences. He gave several examples to demonstrate the communal nature of the government in power and concluded that the alliance must not only have a secular approach but it must also work on drafting a well-thought out strategy to meet the economic challenges that plague the country.
Yusuf Abrahani, from Congress, started out by saying that one of the reasons the secular forces stand defeated is because of their inability to reach out to the masses due to issues of vocabulary, use of the English language etc. He further said that the BJP victory is also a result of the strong anti-Congress sentiment that built up through a series of events- the Anna Hazare Movement, the attack on the Congress post the December 16 Delhi Gang rape case and many more. He laid emphasis on the ‘corruption in the media’ which he said was a corruption of the most serious and dangerous kind. The media, he said, is not secular; while it takes seconds to arrest innocent Muslims, it will take ages to react or not react at all against Hindutva forces.
Mahendra Singh, from CPM, argued that despite India’s secular constitution, its secular fabric has been under threat time and again. In the given context, he continued, it is important for secular forces to connect themselves with ‘people’s issues’ like corruption, poverty, inflation and unemployment and incorporate these in their larger strategies too.
Hiren Gandhi, from Lal Nishan Party, argued that one of the biggest defeats of political parties is that they haven’t been able to win the support and participation of activists who are politically aware but reluctant to formally associate themselves with any political party. Continuing the thread of the Anna Hazare Movement, he said that what the BJP did was to replace Anna’s demand for a ‘strong Lokpal’ with that of a ‘strong leader’ and ‘strong rules’ and that Modi’s coming to power is one of the many examples of ‘strong leadership’ paving way for a dictatorial autocratic regime.
The fourth panel titled Tasks Ahead: What Should Be Done was chaired by Tushar Gandhi and had Irfan Engineer, Ram Puniyani and Mihir Desai as panelists.
Irfan Engineer, associated with All India Secular Forum, argued that Hindutva forces in India have managed to successfully package and sell what are the “stinking elements of our society”. He then suggested a few possible strategies to counter the effect of these “attractively packaged stinking elements”. Some of these include- the need for various movements to come together on a common platform with people discussing and working on a range of issues, creation of a network of peace centres in cities, the selection and use of a few ‘icons’ and their popularization among the country’s youth, cultural movements that spread the message of the likes of Kabir and Tukaram, intervention in colleges through cultural festivals and study material which in fact is already available, he pointed out, thanks to the efforts of organizations like Khoj and Avehi.
Ram Puniyani, associated with All India Secular Forum, pointed out that plenty of alternate study material is already available. What needs to be worked out however is a way to make this material more readable and accessible. The idea, he said, is to connect with the youth both at the level of content and form. He also stressed on the need to collaborate and build lasting networks.
Mihir Desai, advocate, argued that with the present establishment at the Centre, there is likely to be a ‘dual approach’ towards laws- while those that are pro-marginalised (Labour Laws, NREGA etc) will be/ are being diluted and those that empower the State machinery will be strengthened. However, one must not give up on the prospect of using the law to counter the Right, he said. He also emphasized the government’s two-fold agenda of communalization as well as a neo-liberal framework. He concluded with a ‘note of caution’ and a question that later led to much debate and discussion- Who are our collaborators? Should we choose our collaborators on the mere pretext that they are anti-BJP?
All three panelists- Irfan Engineer, Ram Puniyani and Mihir Desai spoke of the formation of the platform, ‘Hum Azaadiyon Ke Haq Mein’ which is an attempt to bring together people working on a range of issues in Mumbai to discuss and deliberate on the ways in which they can intervene through social media, education programmes in colleges, networking, providing help to those on unfair trial by the Hindutva forces etc and counter the challenges being faced today in a democratic and secular way.
Some of the themes that kept recurring in the discussion that followed were- BJP and Congress- the similarities and differences, who we can or cannot collaborate with and how to negotiate with the youth’s ‘apathy’.