Excerpts from a report on Citizens’ Conclave, organized at the Constitution Club, New Delhi from 25th May to 27th May, 2018 by India Inclusive, an informal open platform:
Introductory session, “Democracy and Dissent”, was chaired by Om Thanvi (senior journalist), and addressed by Iftikhar Ahmad Khan (retired Associate Professor, Baroda University), Jagmati Sangwan (Women’s Rights Activist, Former AIDWA Gen. Sec), Kanhaiya Kumar (Student Activist, AISF, CPI), Meeran Chadha Borwankar (Former IPS Officer), Rajdeep Sardesai (consulting editor at the India Today group), Saba Dewan (Documentary Filmmaker), Siddharth Vardarajan (Founding Editor of The Wire) and Usha Ramanathan (Legal Researcher and writer).
Iftikhar Ahmad Khan talked about the rising disenchantment from the state that people were feeling. He urged all citizens to start shedding these various illusions and to “Realise the falsity of the paths that we have been led on and break our complicit silence to encourage democracy.” Jagmati Sangwan called for a collective realization, she said “It is important to observe and learn from the events of the last four years in the country. The marginalised of this nation have been forced to live without their rights and freedoms while the oppressors have been overcompensated with the same”. Saba Dewan urged the need for the unification of various struggles, resistances, movements and communities, by referring to recent incidences of honour killing, xenophobic clashes and religious intolerance.
“The State engages us in senseless debates, it fuels xenophobic tendencies and communal ideas and we need to rise above those illusions and stop ourselves from getting disengaged with democratic processes.” said Siddharth Vardarajan. Usha Ramnathan referred to Aadhaar and said that “Through certain technologies the State can identify and penalise those who dissent. Technology, now, is a tool in the hands of the government to destabilise democracy and to enforce social compliance and then call it good governance.”
Rajdeep Sardesai made a passionate request to the people of the country to do away with neutrality and diplomacy. He specifically spoke about journalists by saying, “The way the society is being divided on the lines of anti-nationals and nationalist, our jobs as journalists is to show the State a mirror and make it answerable. It is time for our moral vocabularies to attack the system unconditionally”. Kanhaiya Kumar said, “We need to take our debates, dissent and discussions to the roads, to the communities that are present beyond our platforms. India Inclusive should spread to the furthest corners of the country to really be inclusive.” He said if we want people to come together we have to sit with the people and speak in their language.
The second session, “Education for Inclusive India”, chaired by Dr Abha Dev Habib (Professor, Miranda House), and speakers were Fahad Ahmad (Gen Sec. TISS SU), Kawalpreet Kaur (President AISA, DU), Manasi Thapliyal (Assistant Professor, AUD), Pooja Shukla (Student Leader, Lucknow University), Richa Singh (Student Leader, Allahabad University) and Munna Sannaki (Student at HCU).
Abha Dev Habib opened the session by talking about the threat to educational spaces through the declining numbers of SC/ST students in Universities, and the condition of women students. “Students have risked their lives, their voices and their opportunities to question the wrong doings within their Universities.” Fahad Ahmad added to this conversation by talking about the threat of privatization. “By privatising education, the State is washing its hands off of its responsibilities. This will lead to the tailoring of education to satisfy the oppressors.” Fahad charged through a passionate dialogue and promised that as long as perverse forces threaten the country, students will keep rising in protest. He ended his note with a few lines addressing the fascist forces, “Yeh baazi bhookh ki baazi hain, Yeh baazi tum hi haroge. Har ghar se bhookha niklega, tum kitne bhookhe maroge?”
Kawalpreet Kaur and Manasi Thapliyal both talked about the need to keep the outrage and dissent alive in classroom spaces. Kawalpreet added, “The State’s goal of attacking Universities is to make sure these classrooms only produce robots, unscientific students who are regressive, feudal and patriarchal.” She also said that looking at the conditions of women across universities in the country, it is time to first ensure the survival of the woman and then her education. They both also reiterated that as long as there are classrooms in the universities, educators and students would breed critical thinking.
Munna Sannaki spoke at length about the need to replace the current education system and replace it with Ambedkar’s model of Inclusive Education. He reiterated Ambedkar’s principles of Education, Organisation and Agitation. He also brought attention to the fact that the infrastructure and education being provided in most universities is severely inadequate. It has led to students committing suicides and that has to addressed urgently.
Pooja Shukla and Richa Singh both spoke about the discrimination being faced by SC/ST and OBC students, the limited opportunities that are given to Muslim students and women. “They don’t want the poor to be educated because if they rise in stature through education, they will transform the system for good” Pooja said. “This government is trying to make sure that history is re-written by traitors and this new India that is being built, we will reclaim it.” She said. Richa Singh talked about the threat dissenting students face in Universities, “Being labelled as seditionists and traitors, we are being demonized and our ideas of freedom and democracy are being delegitimised” she concluded.
The third session, “Attack on Judiciary and Rule of Law”, was chaired by Justice Kolse Patil and speakers were Colin Gonsalves (Senior Advocate, Founder of HRLN), Rebecca John (Senior Advocate, SC), Ramesh Nathan (NCDHR).
The session began with Ramesh Nathan pointing out the State’s transformation from a welfare model to a privatised model that caters to only those who can afford it. “47,000 cases have been reported in the last year of atrocities against SC/ST individuals. This number excludes the unreported cases”, he said. He also pointed out that the legal system is being diluted to embolden specific outfits of the ruling party that are indulging in hate mongering. Colin Gonsalves spoke at length about the various ways in which the judiciary in India is being undermined by the ruling government.
He talks about the importance of making sure that the appointment of judges, the ones who are at the helm of protecting those who are victimised are done only by fellow judges and not the ones in the Government. He added, “If the executive starts electing judges to the High Courts and Supreme Court, that is the day we will lose control of the judiciary and it will no longer protect those who need it the most.” He ended on the note that the Indian Judiciary will continue to fight from within and produce lawyers like Prashant Bhushan and Indira Jaising who have gone above and beyond to ensure that justice is ensured to those in need.
Rebecca John stated, “When the courts fail to uphold the rule of law, it creates a cycle of violence and oppression that repeats itself over and over again.” Furthermore, she spoke at length about the need to question draconian laws like the UAPA and the NIA. These laws, she said, have the power to destabilise the Constitution by threatening the freedom of speech and diversity within the country. She concluded by saying, “Lawyers and Judges who undermine the rule of law are in contempt of the Constitution and should be held accountable for not fulfilling their duty of keeping social justice alive.”
Justice Kolse Patil concluded the session by talking about how the Judiciary is facing an attack from within and from the outside. “The Judges have to be not only elected on the basis of their seniority but also their ideology. It is important to elect judges who uphold the values of the Constitution.” He ended on the realisation that the Judiciary has allowed its values to devolve and thus made itself vulnerable to divisive forces and unfair practices.
The last session of the day, “Economy, Industry and Development” was chaired by Arvind Mayaram (former Finance Secretary, retired IAS Officer). The session was addressed by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (Journalist, Political Commentator), Hemant Shah (Assistant Professor in Economics, HK Arts College), Madhuresh Kumar (National Convenor, NAPM) and Ashok Singh Garcha (Businessman, Farmer, AIAA).
Arvind Jayaram opened the session by talking about the lack of jobs in the country. “The lack of jobs for the growing youth of the country has directly and indirectly influenced the social unrest in the country” he said. He also touched upon the topic of demonetisation by directly correlating the destruction of the rural and informal sector in the past one year. He commented that if the current economic conditions continue to prevail, the next couple of years, it would be very difficult for the Indian economy to survive.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta talked extensively about how policies have severely failed the Indian economy because those in power are guiding them for their own profit. He also stated that the development of few has led to the destruction of a majority of the country’s economic system. While giving the example of Non-Performing Assets and the failure of the Indian banking system, he brought to attention the common factor of all the stakeholders who caused it which is that they are all powerful corporate players. He questioned the kind of people towards whom the economic development of the country is pointed at. He concluded by urging the country to start questioning the new policies and economic reforms that have come up in the last 4 years. These policies and reforms are being appropriated by those in power sustain their hegemony over the masses.
Ashok Sigh Garcha started his dialogue by stating that in the neo-liberal economic policies of the government there is a shift away from the agricultural sector. “What will happen to the farmers and other individuals in the agricultural sector? Where do they go?” he asked. Hemant Shah began his discourse by questioning the illusion that the country is under. “We are hallucinating if we believe that those we are electing to power are safeguarding our economic conditions. They are instead, protecting corporate bodies.” He said. He also criticised the role of the GST in destroying the informal sector, which consists of small shopkeepers and small-scale businesses. He also talked about the destruction that was caused by the demonetisation on farmers who produce perishable goods. He reiterated the falsity of the entire process that endangered more than half of the economy.
Madhuresh Kumar talked extensively on the livelihood issues being faced by the informal sector. He further critically analysed the government’s policy of “ease of doing business” whereby he talked about the massive exemptions being given to CRZs (Coastal Regulation Zone) and SEZs. These exemptions, he said, endanger those who inhabit these zones and will be displaced due to the fast paced and destabilizing development campaigns of the government. He questioned the priority of the government in developing the few at the cost of the masses of the country. He ended his discourse by talking about the misplaced priority of the state to establish development programmes, which weaken the welfare system. He cited the examples of various industrial accidents that have taken place in the past and the overall ignorance of the government to ensure the welfare of the country.
On the Second Day, the first session ‘State of Dalits and Minorities’ started with Chair Harsh Mander sketching contemporary communalization tools such as love jihad, cow politics, destruction of mosques and church which are used to polarize the masses of India in the name of religion. Ram Puniyani pointed out the instance of the film ‘Padmavat’ and the way history and storytelling is appropriated to communalize the people of India, to legitimate the ideas of the RSS about Muslims in India. While referring to Kathua case, he said that we have to identify violence and also identify the hatred behind the violence.
Teesta Setlavad talked about the dangerous point in history when those seated in the structures of democracy: legislation, police, judiciary are people who don’t believe in the values of our constitution and hence the times demand a vibrant radical activism. Tehmina Arora detailed the atrocities on religious minorities and how the reports on such cases hardly cover attack on Christians. She drew attention to the culture of impunity breeding in the country and quotes instances of attack on churches and pastors and sexual violence on women who attend prayers and religious meetings. Jignesh Mewani stated how data shows that BJP has only 20% dedicated voters and with consistent work they can be defeated in 2019.
The second session of second day, on ‘Gender Rights: Attacks and Resistance’, was chaired by Nisha Agarwal. Kavita Krishnan talked about the need of discussing with regard to religious and caste identity when women are being attacked in the name of such identities. She pointed out how it is the same ideology of Hitler that the right wing uses while they talk about ‘protecting’ the women from Muslims. Syeda Hamid said when issues of Muslim women are discussed only questions pertaining to religion are raised and issues of poverty, employment, health are hardly mentioned.
Rachna Mudraboyina recounted the instances of violence transpeople face in the country from the public, police and policies. She demanded that when we talk about minorities of the society, transpeople should also be included in it along with women and children. She extended a ‘Satrangi salaam’ to everyone, which was repeated by the next speaker, Annie Raja. Annie stated that women are facing a warlike situation today and appeals are being made to Hindu women to give birth to six or more children making their bodies like machines or factories. She also mentioned the dangers of handing over public institutions like schools, health centre, guest houses to private owners and how that hinders access to such facilities by the common public, especially women.
The Third Session ‘Silencing the Media’ highlighted the unprecedented kind of media attack and manipulation and the political and economic nexus that facilitates it. Instances of how the current government muscles the media groups in the country through corporates and political parties were pointed out and the extent to which fake news are circulated and consumed. They also talked about the Cobrapost sting operation, which exposed the way in which various agencies manipulated the media outlets and primetime news and influenced the creation of public discourse.
Niranjan Takle pointed out the way in which the choice of subject for newshour, more often than not, silencing the state violence and ignoring the constitutional values. Hartosh Bal, Chaired the session pointed out that this is not an NDA or BJP phenomenon and what journalists and citizens need to aim is to preserve democratic institutions through which dissent is exercised; with regard to media, it includes questions of ownership, transparency in funding and protection of journalists. Sankarshan Thakur said that I think the media has silenced itself more than feeling silenced.
The fourth session of Day 2 was on ‘Attack on Rationalist and HRDs’ discussed the attack on rationalists and human right defenders chaired by Kavita Srivastava. The first speaker Gauhar Raza drew attention to the attack on scientific rationality and temperament and how those in powers now are products of factories of superstitions run by Babas and Matas. He also pointed out the dangers of our times as those responsible for Dabolkar’s murder had the courage to do three more killings.
Megha Pansare detailed the proceedings of the cases of the killings of Pansare, Dabolkar, Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh and how the workings of the inquiry team, police, and the judiciary are not positive. She also pointed out how Maharashtra which bred rational political activists like Savitri Phule, Ambedkar, etc. is now increasingly becoming regressive and strategic attempts need to be put in to change it. Mathew Jacob stressed the ways in which state and state-sponsored vigilante groups have been consistently attacking human right defenders in places like Koodankulam, Bastar, Gujarat, etc. He pointed out how one needs to work with the masses to change this situation and procure the right to dissent and rise rational and scientific questions.
The first session of the third and concluding day, on ‘Pluralism, Diversity and Culture’, was chaired by Seema Mustafa, Editor-in-Chief, The Citizen. Raza Haider, an activist, and media person spoke on the importance of the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb. He stressed about the growing political discrimination practised by the government officials, and the administration towards its common populace. The advocacy would be to revive the ‘Phoolwalon ki Sair’, which was once a celebrated in Delhi where each and every citizen used to join hands without any discrimination.
Ganesh Devi, an author and chief editor of Peoples Linguistic Survey of India, the need for diversity as it is the natural process of evolution. Imposition of Hindi to the rest of India will halt the growth of diverse Indian languages. Last few years, it has been observed that individual identity of tribals are shrinking. Indigenous culture, language, custom, practices and traditions of the tribals are showing a shift because of the movement towards urban spaces or hegemonic modernisation.
The land and forest of the tribals are been taken away by the government for building dams, industries and factories at the cost of affecting the livelihoods of the tribals forcing them to find alternative sources of employment in the cities. This is resulting in the shirking of tribal languages and creating homogeneous non-plural identity of the tribals. Such practices are a threat to diversity and democracy of India.
Sohail Hashmi, an academician, activist and historian, critically analysed the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, which reflected an upper class-caste landlord bias and kept Dalits at the periphery. He emphasized, that languages evolves with the passing time as civilisation evolves with time, it’s a natural process. Seema Mustafa summarised the session by stating that “there are four pillars of democracy; legislature, executive, judiciary and media. But media is restricted by force, fear and coercion.”
The Second Session on ‘Nationalism’ was chaired by Tanika Sarkar, a historian. Prof Apoorvanand, who teaches Hindi in Delhi University, spoke about the institutional strategy to appropriate the Constitution of India by the RSS to make India a Hindu Rashtra. He also elaborated on different aspects of cultural rituals such as Durga pooja and other festivals where an effort is made to homogenize Hindu religion. Violence and hatred is used as tools to propagate their agenda of Hindutva nationalism.
K Satchidanandan, noted poet and critic talked about Nationalism which is getting transformed into fascism. He reminded us of the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, that the majority Hindu Nationalism will lead to violence and the idea of India as sovereign, democratic and republic will be under challenge. In the past also we had dilutions, caste, discrimination and the history is just repeating itself. We need to perhaps develop another idea of democracy, in terms of counter nationalism based on justice and freedom, develop democratic ethics of the media, support human rights organizations, defend federalism and pluralism, be patriotic by working for them.
Zoya Hasan, Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that today in India transition from inclusive nationalism to an exclusive nationalism is taking place. She said we need to build an alternative definition of Nationalism. Tanika Sarkar summed the talk and reflected that it is very important that we reassert the secular fabric of our nation, by including all sections of the society. It is important to uphold the rights given under the constitution and reject the kind of Nationalism.
The third session on ‘Building an Inclusive India’, was chaired by Jyoti Malhotra, the Editor, National & Strategic Affairs, The Print. She began by reading Vajpayee’s message on the day Nehru died. Speaker Prof. Daisy Narayan from Patna University showed how the fascist forces were stopped from entering Bihar at one point of time, and now the communal peace has been disturbed badly. Attack on mosques to create disharmony is getting rampant.
Dr. Mohd Arif, the principal of D R Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Varanasi spoke on the composite cultural. He said that Varanasi has been a place where Azan from Masjid and Arti of Mandirs surround the city of Varanasi. If we want to build an inclusive India, all of us will have strive to carry forward the message of this three day conclave to our villages, districts and states, and make as many people aware as possible. Vrinda Grover, Supreme Court lawyer said the the agenda of the present regime is totally exclusive. She also appealed that women should get together as a political constituency and assert their rights.
The last and the concluding session, on ‘Building Resistance’, was chaired by Ashok Vajpeyi, Hindi poet, and conducted by Prof Apoorvanand. Activist, scholars and students from all over the country spoke on the issue they are facing in their areas. Jamser from Assam spoke on the threat to 60 lakh Assamese in the name of Citizenship. Goldy George from Chhattisgarh raised the issue that we need to take this conclave to various state all over India.
While concluding the Session Ashok Vajpeyi emphasised that the dissent is not new to our culture, it was there 3000 years ago. Even Buddhism and Jainism happened due to dissatisfaction from the existing systems. He said it is important to continue to voice ourselves. RSS is not threat to Islam but it is threat to Hindus, as they are killing the diversity with Hinuism. In these four years, there is rise in threats, violence and suspicion.