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The Present

Romila Thapar

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Celebrating 75 years as an independent nation is a moment to pause and consider whether we have achieved what we had set out to do in 1947, the point at which we converted ourselves from a colony of the British empire to a free nation-state. India was no longer the collection of kingdoms it had been before being colonized, nor were the people of India any longer subjects of the British crown. We were now a sovereign democratic state whose population consisted of free and autonomous citizens, subject to none. 

Secular nationalism had brought Indians together in the demand for freedom, generating the most momentous change in our history.  What we wanted politically, and as a new society, was a democratic, secular nation-state. This was embedded in the Constitution that was agreed upon by all, the acceptance of which we remember and celebrate on Republic Day. The question today is whether the structure the Constitution envisaged as foundational to our nation has been put into practice. The Constitution is what every government swears to uphold; we have to ask what of it is being upheld. This is a crucial question because the Constitution – if respected – can provide us with substantial protection from attempts to deny the democratic and secular structure of our state and society. 

What does the Constitution require of us and to what extent do we abide by it? The Constitution requires three essentials: that we be a democratic nation-state; that we guard against attempts to weaken our democratic functioning; and that we give authority to three basic institutions – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, the agencies through which democracy is practiced, which is why we must ensure their autonomy. 

Universal adult franchise was a remarkable act of foresight and courage by the Nehru government. It enabled us to be a democracy. Legislation was extensively debated in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha before being passed. Representing the views of citizens in the process of governance was new to our history. As long as people are subjects, they are recipients of government orders. But when they mutate into citizens, they have a say in what is to be ordered and why.

Over the years, this aspect has undergone change. The formal procedure of one person, one vote continues. But it is accompanied by a variety of opaque arrangements at different levels between candidates and political parties, as well as the crossing over of defectors on the eve of elections. We should also enquire into why the financial outlays of each party increase enormously with every election. It is becoming routine to rush Bills through both houses, almost like a formality, with little debate. This again demands correction.

For centuries, the executive – more specifically the administrative services and the police – have been the steel-frame of all state systems in India. Early texts discussing the state have mentioned as its seven limbs the ruler, the ministers or administration, the force to protect sovereignty, the collection of taxes to fill the treasury, friendly allies, fortifications, and territory. From the Mauryas to the Cholas and the Mughals, the emphasis in practice was on maintaining a force, on adequate finance and on a reasonable administration. Ashoka Maurya was remarkable because he proclaimed that his governance was directed to the well-being of his subjects. Most other rulers whom we hold up as role models – the Guptas, Cholas, Mughals – made few specific references to this. Governance routinely rested on the functioning of the executive. 

In pre-modern times, only a few complained about the manner in which the administration and the policing force treated the monarch’s subjects, sometimes asserting ruthless power against them. With the coming of the nation-state, this was meant to change. Technically, the citizen now has the right to object to injustice or ill-treatment by the agencies of the executive. It is another matter that, because of the low-caste status and impoverishment of half the population, executive institutions continue to be feared by most people. 

In earlier times, kingdoms had judicial officers. Their primary function was to ensure that government orders were carried out, and those who disobeyed them were punished. Judicial officers had to settle disputes, largely linked to crimes, and, to a lesser extent, to the breaking of civil laws – such laws were anyway few in number, since civil rights were limited. The right to question or oppose authority broke with this past, as the free citizen replaced the subject, and again with the institution of legal equality for all citizens, which is basic to social justice. The civil law is, today, a significant feature of judicial activity. Both the citizen and the judiciary need to be fully aware of what this means to governance.

Colonial rule introduced a judicial system to facilitate the governance of the colony. But in important aspects, such as the freedom to criticize authority, rights were curtailed by other laws, such as the law of sedition. This law was linked to the political domain in colonial times and continues to be so linked today. It limits the rights of the citizen, hence the legitimate demand for its removal.  

Are these three institutions answerable to those in authority or the citizens whose rights they are required to protect? These are pertinent questions for our times when citizens can be arrested and jailed indefinitely, without a trial. Where there is no appeal to habeas corpus, state repression becomes all too common. Consider the Bhima-Koregaon case. Citizens were arrested more than three years ago, yet there has been no trial. From an initial six arrests the number has gone up to sixteen. One wonders if the case has become just a convenient hold-all of charges and arrests.

These three institutions have to ensure the well-being of society in accordance with the Constitution. Their functioning obviously becomes more effective when citizens from all levels of society acquire a clear understanding of their rights under the Constitution, and of their implementation. This is something that we should have done at all levels of our society over the last seventy-five years.    

What are the rights and obligations of the free citizen? 

The rights are to be guaranteed by the state. The obligation to observe the laws of the state is met by the citizens, provided these laws do not contradict their rights. Priority should be given to ensuring that every citizen has access to food, water and shelter. To make this more effective the citizen should also have the right to healthcare, education and employment. The economy has to be planned so as to make these rights feasible. It is not enough to use them as election slogans or claim them as programmes of benevolence. Their implementation is essential to acceptable governance. The awareness of these rights and their implementation should be the concern of both the legislature and the executive. 

The judiciary is central to the set of rights relating to the social equality of all citizens, to the freedom of expression, and to social justice. These are crucial to the good relations between the citizen and the state. Fundamental to the functioning of these rights is the right to information. Citizens must know what actions and decisions are being taken in their name. Such information ensures their well-being. Proposals made by government have to be widely discussed. This requires a free media, whatever the form of expression. Critical opinion on government actions cannot automatically be regarded as anti-national; the government is not the nation. Dissenting ideas and actions have been a part of the Indian tradition throughout history. What is recent is their formulation as rights, particularly the right to free speech and expression – a feature essential to modern society, as the Constitution makes evident. If we claim to be a democracy, every citizen must not only have these rights but also understand them. This is something we still have to do, starting perhaps with familiarizing high school students with their rights as given in the Constitution. 

The existence of a democratic nation is not limited to the functioning of the three institutions I have mentioned. Democracy demands the equality of all citizens. No category of citizens can have priority over the others, irrespective of historical practice, or what is projected as cultural heritage, or described as the religion of the majority. Moreover, there is no such thing as a single unchanging identity that refers to the same community and their descendants over millennia. When historians study the creation of past and present identities of a nation over many centuries, two obvious facts emerge: one, that identities are an amalgam of many features; and two, that they change over time. 

The ancestors of those living in the Indian sub-continent today belonged to a range of varied identities from earliest times. We don’t know what the Harappans called themselves as their language has not been deciphered so far. Genetic evidence based on DNA analyses from skeletons tells us that they were a mix of elements, some local to northern India and some east Iranian.  

Subsequently, the Vedic texts refer to the elite groups as aryas, distinct from the many others whom they call dasas. The texts emphasize the linguistic, religious and cultural difference between the two. DNA sources provide evidence of a genetic strain from Central Asia, dating to about four thousand years before the present, entering north India. This would be the first of many continuous migrations from Central Asia into north India up to recent times. Ancient texts mention the arrival of the Shakas /Scythians, Kushans, Hunas /Huns, and Turushkas / Turks. Some came in small groups as pastoralists or as traders. Later, they were part of an invading army, or came together with the Sufi missions. They settled in different parts of the subcontinent. This gave rise to new religious sects, languages, and communities. Some of these grew from inter-marriage and the evolving of new castes, giving rise to new identities.   

In the early first millennium CE, the prominent religion was Buddhism. By the late first millennium, it was gradually replaced by Puranic Hinduism. Islam entered in slow stages, brought by the Arabs from the west and the Central Asian Turks from the north, and by various groups of people from the east. The population that emerged out of this major inter-face was genetically mixed, spoke varying languages and followed diverse religions, many of which evolved from this inter-mixture.

The Arabs were initially called Yavana, the term Indians had used for the early Hellenistic people, but later for anyone from the West. They were also called Tajiks in Sanskrit sources. They came in larger number as traders across the Arabian Sea and settled all along the coast of western India. The settlements gave rise to a variety of Indo-Arab cultures and religious sects, variously called Khojas, Bohras, Navayathas, Mapillas and such like. When trade on the Indian Ocean opened up in other areas with India playing a major role, there was further interaction between locals and migrants.  Eventually the Europeans arrived to trade and the British colonized India, but did not settle here. They were unaware of our multiple ancestry and the resulting rich culture of India. They imposed on us the erroneous history that Indian society has consisted of two monolithic religious groups – the Hindu and the Muslim – and that Indian history is the narrative of the continuous hostility between the two. In fact, it was the reverse. There were multiple groups, constantly interacting and evolving, and this multiplicity accounted for the richness of Indian culture.  

The term Hindu comes from the Iranian hendu which became al-hind in Arabic. In origin, it is a geographical term linked to the river Indus. It is only in the fifteenth century CE that it came to refer to the religions – other than Islam – practiced in India.  Sanskrit texts of the time do not refer to the Hindu religion. They refer to two belief systems as they also did from earlier times – that is, the Brahmana and the Nastika – referring to those that believed in a deity and those that did not. These were said to be the prevailing two systems where the Nastika consisted of all who did not conform to Puranic Hinduism. This dichotomy goes back to Mauryan times, but the constituents of the Nastika category changed. Earlier it included the Buddhists and Jainas, both of whom rejected deity.  Now the Turushkas were added. This referred to the Turks who were Muslims, who did believe in a deity – Allah – but not in a Puranic deity.  Thus they are included with the non-believers.  

In looking afresh at sources of Indian history from a non-colonial perspective, as many historians have been doing in the last fifty years, the shape of Indian society takes a very different form from that of the colonial definition. Religions were not unitary and monolithic. They consisted largely of a juxtaposition of communities and sects, which had, as with other societies, periods of co-existence and of local conflict. They sorted out their relationships at this level. There were no all-India organizations in pre-modern times. It was neither a society that tolerated every difference in a non-violent way, nor one given to constant violent confrontations. Like all complex pre-modern societies, it had contradictions, some leading to intolerance, and some that were settled harmoniously. But these relations were in and among various communities in diverse regions. 

This intermixing of peoples, languages and cultures has been the historical experience of most parts of the world. We all have multiple ancestries. Their importance changes from time to time. In current times we are aware of this, so we have to work out a pattern that enables us to live together, embracing this multiplicity. It is rational and logical to choose a democratic pattern of life, since majoritarianism of any kind is opposed to democracy – as indeed to the ethos of India when viewed historically.   

The identity we worked out for ourselves through the national movement was that we were Indians above all else. Every citizen was an Indian and had equal rights. This is our contemporary identity.  The Hindus disowned the mleccha and the Muslims disowned the kafir, but the Indian includes every citizen as Indian. This is one absolute difference between pre-modern times and our times. 

We have to understand and honour our identity of being Indian. This identity should come with its component of the ethical values of tolerance and refraining from violence against others. This inclusiveness is an essential of citizenship and is required by our Constitution. Every Indian citizen has the same rights. We cannot allow one group of Indians to call for the murder and annihilation of another group of Indians who are fellow citizens, quite irrespective of their religion, language, or caste. It is only when we understand the real meaning of citizenship and implement it, that we can be free citizens of an independent nation.

This essay is an edited version of a lecture delivered at Shivaji University, Kolhapur, on 29 January 2022, and in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, on 2 March 2022.

Romila Thapar (born in 1931) is an Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India. She is the author of several books including the most recent, Voices of Dissent: An Essay (2021).