IN the run-up to the 75th anniversary of Independence in August that is being celebrated as ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ (nectar-filled grand celebration of freedom), an anguished letter (April 26) from 108 retired civil servants who have held the highest office, addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, provides a reality check about India and ‘freedom’ that is very disconcerting.
Drawing attention to the pattern of hatred and mob violence that has targeted the minorities — particularly Muslim and Dalit citizens — the opening paragraph of the letter is candid and stark. It notes: “We are witnessing a frenzy of hate filled destruction in the country where at the sacrificial altar are not just Muslims and members of the other minority communities but the Constitution itself.”
This is a very serious observation, namely that the Constitution of India is on the ‘sacrificial altar’. The extrapolation which follows is that the values and principles enshrined in that sacred document are being mortgaged for electoral advantage in the first instance and an even more alarming long-term objective — that of jettisoning this 1950 Constitution and replacing it with one that prioritises the current socio-political orientation of the BJP and its supporting ecosystem.
Bureaucrats in India prefer to be anonymous and, both individually and collectively, they are reluctant to voice their opinions in public on prickly political matters (unless they have decided to enter active politics).
Clearly, more recent developments in the country have compelled some of them to voice their concerns in public and they have come together as the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG).
Thus, in the very second sentence, they add: “As former civil servants, it is not normally our wont to express ourselves in such extreme terms, but the relentless pace at which the constitutional edifice created by our founding fathers is being destroyed compels us to speak out and express our anger and anguish.”
From beef-lynching and love jihad, to bulldozers razing modest dwellings of impoverished Muslim suspects and a Dalit boy being forced to lick the feet of upper-caste peers, the more recent pattern of mob violence and State complicity makes a mockery of good governance and constitutional rectitude.
It is this aspect that the April 26 letter dwells on and adds: “It is no longer just the politics of an assertive Hindutva identity, nor the attempt to keep the communal cauldron on the boil —all that has been going for decades and in the last few years, it has become a part of the new normal. What is alarming now is the subordination of the fundamental principles of our Constitution and of the rule of law to the forces of majoritarianism, in which the State appears to be fully complicit” (emphasis added).
State complicity in targeted violence against the ‘other’ and the inciting of mobs to engage in communal discord and destruction is as old as free India, given that the State had been born out of the embers of the 1947 Partition, one of the most bloody chapters of the 20th century, where the density of mass tragedy remains unparalleled. A stark summary is: almost 10 million people killed, maimed, raped or displaced — across 100 miles in 100 days.
In recent decades, the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 and the 2002 Godhra (Gujarat) killings are illustrative of State complicity, ineptitude and turpitude. As senior civil servants who were responsible for the maintenance of law and order in different capacities (chief secretaries of states and DGs of police, among other functionaries), the signatories to the April 26 letter are careful not to make sweeping allegations. They add: “While we are not aware if the current spurt in communal frenzy is coordinated and directed by the political leadership, it is evident that the administration at the state and local levels provides a facilitating environment for mischievous lumpen groups to operate without fear.”
The now-retired signatories to the April 26 letter include Shivshankar Menon (ex-NSA), Shyam Saran (former foreign secretary), TK Banerjee (former defence secretary), Julio Ribeiro (ex-DGP), Vijaya Latha Reddy (former deputy NSA), Rana Banerji (formerly with R&AW) and many other highly respected former officials.
This is not the first time that the CCG has written such an anguished missive. In December 2020, a group of 104 of them had written to UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath over the Moradabad love jihad killing that was triggered by a UP government ordinance. At that time, they noted: “Chanakya taught us, a crafty politician must sow dissension amongst rivals. Here you are sowing dissensions among our own people. We, therefore, demand that the illegal ordinance be withdrawn forthwith and those Indians that have suffered from its unconstitutional enforcement be suitably compensated.”
Predictably, this December 2020 letter of the CCG was countered by an open letter by another group of 224 former civil servants, judges and military officers. They responded (on January 4, 2021) under the banner of the Forum of Concerned Citizens (FCC). They caustically noted: “It is a matter of concern that one group of retired civil servants, visibly biased with an anti-establishment attitude despite overtly posing as ‘non-political’, repeatedly avail of every opportunity to put Indian democracy, its institutions, and persons legitimately holding high offices in poor light before the whole world by making ill-considered public statements, or writing misconceived communications to various authorities.”
Perhaps, the April 26 letter will also elicit a riposte from the FCC. A constructive civil society debate must be encouraged as part of the democratic process. However, some critical issues with a bearing on the internal security of the country have been brought into focus by the CCG. They are to be commended for their conviction and courage — to raise their concerns in this manner — when such dissent is often disparaged or muzzled.
[email protected] has been packaged as a celebration of freedom and amrit, with its life-nourishing connotations, has been invoked. This freedom should neither be trampled upon nor denied to the most vulnerable citizens. The image of a man with amputated arms being charged for stone-pelting in the Khargone violence is a stain on the integrity of the State and the lofty claims being made in the mahotsav leading to August 15, 2022.
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