A call to honour

Alok Rai
indian constitution, reading constitution, caa protests, nrc protests, indian express

At a recent protest against the CAA/NRC in the capital, citizens read the Preamble.

The 70th is inevitably a sombre anniversary, unlike the ones associated with gold and diamond. This is, at least in part, due to the grim words of the King James Bible: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Fly away, indeed.

This is a time of reckoning, of reflection, and, in such times, one turns to the classics. Classics improve the mind: “The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves in our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.” (Calvino) It was precisely in such a mood of crisis and recovery that I turned — returned — to Henry David Thoreau’s The Duty of Civil Disobedience recently.

Thoreau was, acknowledgedly, Gandhi’s guru. Gandhi published a translated synopsis of Thoreau’s work in 1907. Civil Disobedience was written in 1849 in a particular, and particularly American, context — slavery, and yet another immoral war. It soon outgrew its context, and quickly became a classic of non-violent political activism. Of course, one notices right away that Gandhi’s programme of non-violent political activism was defined not in terms of “disobedience” but rather of truth — as satyagraha, an insistence on the truth. But perhaps, in times of crisis, an insistence on the truth might itself be construed as disobedience. Perhaps, worse.

Thoreau’s words are unambiguous: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” The classic instance is Sophocles’s Antigone, challenging Creon’s law in order that she may give her brother a proper funeral. And indeed, there is a noble Indian tradition of breaking immoral laws in the name of a higher moral principle. One thinks of the Dandi March and, before that, of Gandhi’s appearance before Judge Broomfield in 1922, on a charge of sedition. It is at least arguable that Gandhi’s most crucial contribution to the anti-colonial struggle was to establish the distinction between legality and legitimacy firmly in our public political discourse — so that the colonial regime, armed with the formidable apparatus of legality, was revealed in all its equally fearsome nakedness, shorn of the vestments of legitimacy. It is important to remember this Gandhi, and not the parody paraded as a sanitised, sanitary icon of the Swachhta campaign.

Well, the Indian republic, confronting the carefully synchronised challenges of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), faces just such a crisis of mortal significance, appropriate to its 70th anniversary. And the classic, reliable as ever, helps out: “How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” Thoreau was actually imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes for supporting an immoral war, and even the newly-appropriated “nationalist” icon, Vallabhbhai Patel, led the Bardoli satyagraha against paying taxes to the colonial government. Taxes imply complicity. However, I fear that something more direct might be called for in respect of the cruelties that we can reasonably expect from the calibrated execution of the CAA/NRC process. Again, Thoreau: “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

The moral collapse of the political class — practically all, let their names be remembered — should surprise no one. It is reassuring that a few civil society voices are beginning to be raised. But clearly, it will need much, much more to redeem the tarnished conscience of the Republic: a tide of civil disobedience, of savinaya avagya, a mass insistence on the truth that prejudice can never be legitimate, even when it is made into law. Franklin D Roosevelt, addressing Congress on the eve of World War II, declared: “There comes a time in the affairs of men when they must prepare to defend not their homes alone but the tenets of faith and humanity…”

Imagine the alternative. Will we stand and watch as thousands, perhaps millions of ‘undocumented’ poor people are herded into detention camps? (Remember, this is a country in which the Prime Minister failed to produce his graduation certificate.) Think Nazi Germany, when ‘obedient’ citizens went about their normal business, even as shops and homes unaccountably fell vacant, and looked away when their neighbours and fellows were bundled away to detention camps. And covered their noses when the belching smokestacks made the air smell strange…

Macbeth at 70, remarking on the storm that brings Duncan to his death and so sets the tragedy in motion, says:

Threescore and ten I can remember well,

Within the volume of which time I have seen

Hours dreadful and things strange: but this sore night

Hath trifled former knowings.

Heaven knows our Republic has seen terrible things in the last 70 years, but I fear that the night that is now upon us will put all these former horrors — and us — to shame.

That — or we are called to honour.

The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University