This was an opening statement in a panel discussion at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation's conference on republican values. The theme of the discussion was 'Freedom'.
This discussion on "freedom" has two contexts. One is the recent troubles in our country, the feeling that we are living through a time when our freedoms are challenged by an intolerant majoritarianism. This is a good time to reflect on the cardinal republican values: equality, democracy, secularism and freedom.
The second context for this discussion is quite literally this conference's location: the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, an institution closely associated with the Congress. Taken together, these two contexts give me my theme. I want to examine the relationship of the republican Congress with the freedoms guaranteed in our constitution.
In this time of political crisis, when anxious citizens look for political allies to defend their freedoms, how likely are they to look to the Congress? Not very likely, because the Congress in its decades in office helped create the legal and administrative apparatus that eroded our civil liberties. Congress governments either pioneered illiberal laws or willingly built on oppressive precedents authored by others.
Take the example of cow-slaughter, if only because the lynching of Mohammad Aklaq created such moral revulsion. Congressmen condemned the murder and denounced the BJP for its bigotry in its aftermath. But the historical record shows that it was Congress governments in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh that passed the first cow-protection acts. They didn't have to; directive principles aren't justiciable, but they chose to. It's these precedents that the BJP built upon when it legislated draconian punishments for cow-slaughter in states like Haryana.
The Congress doesn't seem embarrassed by this record. Last month Mr Digvijay Singh claimed credit for it. "Out of 29 states,", he said, "cow slaughter is banned in 24 states and these bills were promulgated during Congress rule." He said this after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq. He challenged the BJP to draft an all-India bill which he said the Congress would support. How does a party condemn hysterical mob violence over cow-slaughter one moment and press for a general ban the next? The BJP, for all its wickedness, stands for one side of this argument; the Congress manages to stand for both.
Freedom of religion is a foundational republican value. Several Indian states have passed misleadingly named Freedom of Religion Acts that were designed to curb the individual's freedom to convert, implicitly to Islam and Christianity. The first bills of this sort were passed in the late 60s by non-Congress governments in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. After the Congress regained power in these states, it made no effort to repeal them.
When a party that fetishises secularism won't defend the freedom of an adult to choose his religious beliefs without government interference, what claim does it have to that value? In 2006, a Congress government in Himachal Pradesh passed a freedom of religion bill on the same lines as the law passed that same year by Narendra Modi's Gujarat government. We know the core issues that define the BJP; what does the Congress stand for? How can it claim religious freedom as a defining principle if it won't expend political capital to defend it?
The Congress's record in the matter of defending civil liberties is dismal. All of us here remember the Emergency as a nightmare of authoritarianism and unfreedom. We forget, though, that a state of continuous emergency prevails in large parts of our country thanks to AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, passed by a Congress government in 1958 and upheld by successive Congress governments up to the present. Indian citizens in Kashmir and the North-East have no civil liberties that can't be abrogated at will, and no recourse. In ten years in office, the UPA couldn't find the courage or conviction to repeal AFSPA. If the Congress sees fundamental freedoms as a luxury that can be suspended in the name of national interest, how is it different from the BJP?
Nehru's words on freedom have a special resonance in Delhi at this time of year. 31 years ago in this first week of November, Sikhs in Delhi had neither peace nor freedom nor even the right to life. That hideous pogrom and the Congress's responsibility for it should haunt us all when we discuss abstract republican values in comfortable conference halls. If the Congress wants to claim these values, it should stop treating Indians like clients with needs and start treating them as free citizens with rights. The right to embody freedom can't be inherited from Nehru; it has to be earned.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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