Who's right? Is the constitution above sloganeering?
Full disclosure – The author is a member of the Aam Aadmi Party.
An elected representative of the people of Mumbai’s Byculla Assembly constituency, member of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), Waris Pathan was suspended from the Maharashtra State Assembly for refusing to chant the slogan, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. Honestly, I never thought a time would come when I would have to read, hear or write this rather unbelievable line. India today may as well be a sequel to George Orwell’s 1984.
The sequence of events is important to note for context. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s chief Mohan Bhagwat said, “Now the time has come when we have to tell the new generation to chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai. It should be real, spontaneous and part of all-round development of the youth.” AIMIM Chief Asaduddin Owaisi responded by asserting his right to refuse to follow Bhagwat’s diktat. He said he would not utter the slogan even if a knife was put to his throat. An AIMIM MLA from Aurangabad, Imtiaz Jaleel, was speaking on the floor of the house (he was objecting to the use of government funds to construct memorials for leaders like Bal Thackeray, Dr BR Ambedkar and Gopinath Munde among others) when a Shiv Sena MLA interrupted him, questioning his party’s stance on the slogan controversy. After a subsequent adjournment to the Assembly, Jaleel and Pathan were surrounded by MLAs from other major parties (Congress, NCP, BJP and Shiv Sena). The demand: they chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. When Pathan refused and said ‘Jai Hind’ instead, the unsatisfied MLAs initiated a motion to suspend him from the Assembly.
Pathan’s suspension is a manifestation of an ideology that rejects the supremacy of India’s Constitution. This is Majoritarianism 101. The gravity of the situation must be stated and stressed upon — a democratically-elected member of Maharashtra’s Legislative Assembly was suspended for refusing to chant a slogan. This is a blatant trampling of his democratic right as a citizen and also a direct assault on the right of an elected member of a legislative body. As an MLA, it is both his right and his responsibility to air his constituency’s grievances and concerns, which is arguably what Pathan was doing when he said that he objected to the slogan that was being championed by the RSS. It is also extremely unfair on the voters of Byculla, whose representative has been disallowed from taking part in this session of the Assembly for no real fault.
I sincerely hope the suspension is challenged in the court and the court sets it aside at the earliest. The precedent this move will set is dangerous and has the potential to do long-term damage to our legislative process.
Does it hurt anyone to say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’? It doesn’t hurt me. I have never had a problem with it. I have been a part of numerous gatherings where the slogan has been chanted. But surely, people can decide for themselves? Does Owaisi’s claim to patriotism become less credible because he chooses ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ over ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’? It really shouldn’t be of relevance in the 21st century. But since it is, let’s be clear — the mere act of chanting something cannot determine one’s patriotism.
Even if we were to accept for a moment that the chanting of a slogan is the metric of love for the country, the insistence on ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai‘ as the only legitimate chant, dismissing all others, is important to understand. When the Bharat Mata was depicted in the nude by MF Hussain, a ‘Muslim’ painter, it was claimed that the painting had hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus, implying that the Bharat Mata belonged to Hindus. Today, when a Muslim legislator refuses to praise the Bharat Mata, he is suspended from the Maharashtra Assembly. No matter what pseudo nationalists may claim, this is not about India or love for the country. It is a subtle attempt at pushing Hindutva as the only true form of nationalism.
Communal politics is not new to our country. What is fresh about this new avatar of the Sangh parivar is its ability to appropriate the legacy of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, on one hand, and to disregard the Indian Constitution, on the other. Imitaz Jaleel was objecting to the use of state resources to build memorials for leaders, including the one for Dr Ambedkar. While the BJP government in Maharashtra spends Rs 450 crore on celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of the man, it continues to disregard the embodiment of his most significant contribution to India: the Constitution.
The discourse surrounding slogans and the implication of patriotism is frivolous and tactically appears to be an attempt to polarise the electorate before a crucial election cycle. Politicians on the Right, whether Hindu or Muslim, have been guilty of stoking the communal fire on a regular basis. Political parties who do this stand to gain electorally because raising issues like this often leads to a consolidation of votes. In the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly election, AIMIM supporters circulated video clips of the Owaisi brothers’ most provocative speeches via WhatsApp, helping mobilise support for the party in many Muslim dominated seats like Byculla, Kurla and Bandra (E) in Mumbai. Young Mumbai Muslims who had not witnessed the ’93 riots, were reminded of the worst instances of communal violence the city has seen. The result was a fantastic electoral debut for AIMIM in Maharashtra. The BJP has used similar means of hate mongering and provoking insecurities in the past. The suspension of Waris Pathan gives another opportunity to the AIMIM to reinforce the idea that Muslims are being persecuted (and this does qualify as persecution) by the ruling BJP, which represents the majority. It also hands the other parties, including the Congress, the opportunity to upgrade their nationalist credentials. For short-term political gain, the fault lines of a fractured society are being tested.
This is not the time to debate the legitimacy of arguments on either side of the slogan debate, because that will only help the cause of communal politicians. Without endorsing Owaisi or his party, we must support Pathan’s democratic right as an Indian citizen and condemn his illegal and unconstitutional suspension from the Maharashtra Assembly.
It is also equally important that we call out the sheer hypocrisy of the Congress party that has been on display in this episode. According to media reports, both Congress and NCP, the self-proclaimed torchbearers of secularism, joined the BJP and Shiv Sena in their majoritarian indulgence.
India was secular and socialist, without Indira Gandhi inserting the words into the Preamble of our Constitution. The BJP does not need to alter the Constitution to change that, and we need not wait for that formality to take note and act.