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From the lens of Historian- Revisiting the Vision of the Indian Nation in the Era of the COVID-19 Pandemic


Arjun Kumar, Simi Mehta

India is known for its vast diversity and is one of the largest democratic countries in the world. It is not hidden that the country has diverse history of rulers and colonialism in India had brought about major changes in 18th century. The struggle for independence  was led by our countrymen and women.  

The struggle for independence upheld a nationalist vision for the future which inspired millions of people across the world. On the occasion of the 73rd Indian Independence Day, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi organized a distinguished lecture by Prof Mridula Mukherjee on ‘From the lens of a Historian: Revisiting the Vision of the Indian Nation in the Era of the COVID-19 Pandemic’.


Prof Salil Misra, Pro-Vice Chancellor-II, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), New Delhi; Dean, School of Law, Governance and Citizenship, AUD; Professor, School of Liberal Studies, AUD stated that India as a nation started developing in the second half of nineteenth century and matured in the first half of the twentieth century. It was imagined the nation was inclusive, territorial, civic and non-coersive during the same time. Nations are not frozen entities and are constantly vulnerable to political, social and economical pressures.

Currently, India is going to huge global crisis which have different manifestations for country like India, therefore it is important to have vision for New India. He highlighted three perspectives of crisis-medical, socio-economic and epidemiological perspectives. According to medical perspective, irrelevant of socio-economic conditions, there is need to provide medical services to people at any cost. Socio-economic dimension shows the human cost borne by poor people in a pandemic. Under this perspective, handling crisis becomes a tight-rope war.

Epidemiological perspective says there is a minimum damage that cannot be avoided and there is no defined maximum. This dimension defines the role of policies by society and government to reduce the gap between minimum and maximum. All these dimensions affect the trajectory, vision and imagination of our nation.

Prof Mridula Mukherjee, Professor of Modern Indian History (Retd.), Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi highlighted the national vision of the freedom struggle. The first element focuses on principle of anti-colonialism that says India would not accept foreign domination in any sphere of life. This was the foundation of national struggle and it is relevant even today. She highlighted that India has managed to have a fairly independent foreign policy for the better part of the last 73 years however constraints, deviations and weaknesses have remained.

Secondly, the concept of ‘self-reliance’, what is being trumpeted today as ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, not new but dated back to the times of the Indian freedom struggle. The foundations of economic development were laid well and deep in the Nehruvian period when various academic and research institutions like IITs were set up.-Also, setting up the public sector which boosted economic development and then went into heavy industries. These were strengthened in the following years under the leadership of under Lal Bahadur Dhastri and Indira Gandhi. In 1991, economy was liberalized because the world economy changed and it was felt that our aim of self-reliant development had to be achieved differently

Thirdly, secularism is thefoundation stone of the nationalist vision. Saying that India is a democratic country is not enough, as even authoritarian regimes have had democratic institutions to back them. In India, Democracy is meaningless without the accompanying principles of Republicanism, Civil Liberty (freedom of speech, expression, press and association), Secularism and Socialism (economic and social equality). 

The vision of the Indian freedom struggle and its leaders was to create a secular, democratic, national India. There is no national India without democracy and secularism.  Just before Quit India movement, Gandhiji was concerned about what would be the vision of India for the minorities.

She quoted Gandhiji from Draft Instructions for Civil Registers presented by Mahatma Gandhi on August 8, 1942 to working committee, when entire leadership of Congress was arrested and these were never actually distributed to common people and it says, “After the withdrawl of British rule, the constitution of future government of the country will be settled by the joint deliberation of whole nation including all parties. The government will not belong to congress nor to any particular group of parties but to the 35 crores people of India. All congress men should make it clear that it will not be the rule of Hindus or any particular community.”

Even in his public speeches Gandhiji spoke of Hindu-Muslim unity. In a speech addressing the AICC in Bombay on 8th August 1942, he said “those hindus whobelieve in the doctorine of the sword may like to keep Muslims under dominance, I do not belong to that section, I represent the Congress’. Congress does not believe in the domination of any group or any community, it believes in the democracy which includes in its orbit every one of the community inhabiting this vast country. India is without doubt homeland of the muslims. Every muslim should therefore cooperate in this fight to freedom.’

Gandhiji further added,  The Congress does not belong to any one class or community; it belongs to the whole nation. It is open to Musalmans to take possession of the Congress. They can, if they like, swamp the Congress by their numbers, and can steer it along the course which appeals to them. The Congress is fighting not on behalf of the Hindus but on behalf of the whole nation, including the minorities. It would hurt me to hear of a single instance of a Musalman being killed by a Congressman. In the coming revolution, Congressmen will sacrifice their lives in order to protect the Musalmans against a Hindu’s attack and vice versa. It is a part of their creed, and is one of the essentials of non-violence.

Few days before when the Harijan movement breaks out on August 9, 2020, Gandhiji refers to thecomplaint forwarded to him by the president of Delhi Congress Provisional Committee thatsays RSS consisting of 3000 members goes through the Lathis followed by reciting the slogan “Hindustan belongs to hindu and nobody else”, they also said, drive out the English first and then we should subjugate the muslims and if they do not listen and we know what to do with them”. Gandhiji commented that the slogan is wrong and central scheme is worse and hope that incharge will inquire into complaints and take the necessary steps. 

‘Hindustan belongs to all those who are born and bred here and who have no other country to look to. Therefore, it belongs to Parsis, Beni Israels, to Indian Christians, Muslims, and other non-Hindus as much as to Hindus.‘. 

Gandhi’s classic formulation of citizen of india

Referring to the controversial CAA,  Prof. Mukherjee opined that there is no need of any certificate to prove citizenship according to Gandhi’s definition. Gandhiji said “Free India will be no Hindu Raj, it will be Indian Raj based not on the any set community but on the representatives of whole people without distinction of religion. Religion is a personal matter and should have no place in politics.” In those days when there were no TVs and social media, Gandhiji’s message reached across to millions in a crystal clear manner.

Prof. Mukherjee further pointed out at least five issues in contemporary India that go clearly against constitutional as well as  Gandhian principles. One, the manner in which Kashmir situation was handled beginning with 5th August 2019, and its people and political representatives were not taken into account.  It has serious implications because Kashmir is an important element in the conception of Indian Secularism. Till now, even basic services like the internet have not been restored.

Second,  a very different direction approach from secularism was adopted in the implication of the Citizenship Amendament Act and the possibility of NRC. Communal majoritarianism was brought into politics, instead of legal framework. The very definition of citizenship for CAA and NRC is different from the way it has been stated in the Indian Constitution.

Third, Prof. Mukherjee reminded of the the judgment of 1991 according to which no religious disputes would be permitted over the places of worship. Recently, with the issue of building of Ram Mandir,  majoritarianism has come out in full force. The problem is not with believing in religion, or going to the problem. The problem is with the open association of the State with a religion, so blatantly.

Fourth, the riots in North-East Delhi in February 2020 showing the change in the nature of violence increasingly becoming the one-sided affairs instead of clashes between communities. They are taking on  the character of pogroms rather than riots. Even the forces of law and order collude with certain communities to perpetrate violence against them. During the pandemic, a particular religious gathering was communalized for political benefits. Even the poor hawkers were targeted and attacked because they belonged to one particular community. She stated this is not the India Mahatma Gandhi visualised. The  Gandhian dream of Hindus protecting their Muslim brethren in the country is being tarnished.

Fifth, India had faith in a Democratic, Republican, Civil Libertarian political system.  While explaining the issue of civil liberties, she quoted Gandhiji, ‘Liberty of speech means that it is unassailed even when the speech hurts. Liberty of the press can be said to be truly respected only when the press can comment on the severest terms upon and even misrepresent matters’; ‘Freedom of association is truly respected when assemblies of people can discuss even revolutionary projects.

No one decides if the press is representing properly or not. The moment this power goes to the executive and the judiciary, it becomes a curb on the freedom of press. Prof. Mukherjee further elaborated on how Gandhiji upheld the principles of civil liberty: ‘Civil liberty, consistent with the observance of non-violence is the first step towards Swaraj. It is the breath of political and social life, it is the foundation of freedom. There is no room here for dilution or compromise, it is the water of life.’ 

She exemplified many movements such as the Non-cooperation movement, Karachi movement had faced dissent. She opined that it is very important to tolerate dissent and encourage it as it is an essential part of democracy. She stated that even when there were differences between Subhash Chandra Bose and Gandhiji in 1939, Gandhiji stated that the views of both the sides – supporters of Bose and those who were against him should present their views in public domain.

Even during World War II, when India was forced to fight to support Britain and its allies without its consent for the war, the Congress invited Socialists and even Bose after his expulsion from leadership to deliver the fundamental message that all opinions have to be respected and there is no freedom without dissent. Dissent will gave invaluable lessons. She said freedom leads to dissent, and this was the way in which principles were articulated during the time of the freedom struggle.

The issue of civil liberites is highlighted in the Bhima Koregaon Case of 2018 wherein a large number of people who were declared ‘urban naxals’ are languishing in jail. There are poets, lawyers, activists, academicians among them who were charged under framing conspiracies against people.

Unfortunately, while we are celebrating the 74th Independence Day, we are a nation that canno bear criticism from harmless people. Such is the self-confidence of our nation, where students from universities such as JNU and Jamia Milia Islamic, were brutually handled. This is not the principle of civil libertythat our freedom struggle stood for. Giving example of activist Harsh Mander, Professor Mukherjee said that the persons who have been fighting for a whole range of Gandhian causes are now being charged guilty of inciting violence.

She highlighted that media is supposed to be the fourth estate which is supposed to show the mirror to the power. Media is supposed to play a critical role. She highlighted that CAA is a unique movement in the post-independent India that resembles almost every principle of the nationalist vision. It was for the constitution and for the first time constitution were brought to streets.

It was the ‘Youth movement’ from all over the country and it was the across religion. It was fighting for liberty and civil citizenship but this movement was crushed taking advantage of pandemic. One of the tragedies of the pandemic has been it has crushed one of the most unique mass movement in post Indian Independence. She thinks time has come to talk the language of love and there is need to look I ourselves and look where we are going wrong.

Lastly, the vision of the economic and social development of India would be egalitarian. In this egalitarian vision, there were two components: social equality and economic equality or pro-poor orientation. There were debates for economic equality among the leftist leaders or socialist leaders that whether India after Independence should be a capitalist economy or socialist economy. But no one whether they were gandhian, ambedkarities or nehruvians defer from these principles though their methods for achieving social equality were different.

The egalitarian aspect of the nationalist vision has been violated in the context of the lockdown. More elitesm has come into picture and India is surrendering to foreign capital. It is unforgivable in the manner in which pandemic was managed. The poor were starved, they had to walk in the heat before any government action was taken. The same people who were charged unnecessaruily in the riots came to help poor in the heat while delhi people were sitting in the offices in the lutynes.

Instead of putting resources in the hands of people, the authorities are concerned about the fiscal deficit. The world is talking of giving extra $400-$600 allowance to unemployed and here women Jan Dhan accounts are stacked with huge amount of Rs 500. And it costs more than Rs 500 to even withdraw from banks for women living in villages. The one programme helping our poor today is MNREGA and we can’t increase wages.

Dr Arjun Kumar, Driector, IMPRI highlighted that IS is moving towards sanctioning $4 trillion to pandemic recoveries which is not even Indian GDP and India has sanctioned only 10% of the GDP to a country of second largest population of the world. There has been coportization of state and youth is being jeoparised of opportunities in the country.

Prof Rakesh Batabyal, Associate Professor, Centre for Media Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi equalizes the contraction of economy with thepeople’s mindset due to which our vision is getting smaller. Before 1947 there was no Pakistan and our natural frontiers went beyond Pakistan to Afghanistan to the middle east to Egypt to Europe. Presently the worst kind of regimes are our natural allies. He remarked that in the last 50 years there is not just a contraction of the economy but the contraction of Indians who are seen as others not a part of a secular diverse country but an extremely contracted group.

Prof Ranjit Singh Ghuman, Professor, Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), Chandigarh highlighted the three phases of communalism. The third phase is based on fear and hatred and tended to use violence of language deed or behavior. The language of war and enmity against political opponents is evident from current happenings.

The minorities which constitute about 25 % of the Indian population are unsettled, under fear and under threat and peace cannot be achieved with these types of emotions flowing through them. Since independence, India was never free from communalism. But when leader of nation favours laying foundation of a religious place of a particular community, he thinks this act is unparalleled in the history of India and it has changed the entire thoughts.

Dr Rashmi Singh, Additional Commissioner, North Delhi Municipal Corporation remarked that people, women, children the youth within this cross-section have common goals. Every youth needs a decent opportunity to make a decent living. The aspirations have to be kind of reflected by intent to be able to fulfill the targets in terms of quantitative and qualitative milestones that cannot possibly be done by the government alone. She believes it is the the time to set the development discourse in terms of certain practical nuances of life which affect us but we have been treating it as a part of life.

Dr Murad Ahamed Khan, Assistant Professor, Department of Foreign Languages, Faculty of International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Aligarh believes that policies of current government have been lacking in being inclusive of every community in the country. The PM has failed to deliver even a single greeting towards the minority and it is against secularism. He also said that people have the right to criticize the policies of the government.

Dr Richa Raj, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi, New Delhi; Member, Academic Council, University of Delhi believes that it is not just a democracy that one needs to uphold but the other ideas such as republicanism of civil liberty, secularism, socialism as well as nationalism which are the legacy of our anti-colonial struggle. The government is trying to pull back public funding from higher institutions to open new schools and institutions and pushing the open distance learning or online education which good to a certain extent. She also said that the New education Policy 2020 is only good on paper and not sure how much good it will be practical. The government should provide subsidized education.

Dr Nitin Tagade, Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune said that the pandemic didn’t start with coronavirus but with the demonetization in 2016. The economic reform has a human face that goes back to what Dr. Ambedkar said: “We have achieved the political democracy but it the success depends not on the political democracy but depends on the social and economic democracy and this social and economic democracy has the connection with the human face of the economic reforms”.

He also pointed out two programs are helping the poor MGNREGA and the food security bill. He believes that we need not only political democracy but also social and economic democracy and we need to make reforms keeping this in mind. He highlighted inequality by stating the facts and fugures that 70 % of inequality exists in asset ownership and 20 % population is Scheduled Caste which owns only 7.5 % of total assets.

Dr T Sadashivam, Assistant Professor (Senior Level), Department of Public Administration, Pachhunga University College (A Constituent College of Mizoram Central University), Aizawl pointed out that there are only two states in India that have not seen any death during this COVID pandemic- Mizoram and Lakshadweep. The main reason there has been no death in Mizoram is due to community participation. Community participation is an important part of democracy. In India, we have a central government, state government, and local government. There is also a third layer of government called the panchayat system. The panchayat system has been praised by many political leaders but even after so many years the panchayat system still faces financial issues.

Dr Indu Prakash Singh, Facilitator, CityMakers Mission International highlighted the Indian and Non-Indian part of this nation. Indian part is characterized with the functioning of institutions, corporates, PM Care with which money is raised and spent. The non-India is a place where all the tribals, Muslim women and children are living in awful situations. He believes that bueraeucratic institutions like NITI Aayog, CBI are useless and extreme power lies with the Prime Minister.

YouTube Video for From the Lens of a Historian: Revisiting the Vision of the Indian Nation in the Era of the COVID-19 Pandemic

We acknowledge Tanya Agrawal for assisting in making this event report. Tanya Agrawal is a research intern at IMPRI and pursuing Masters in Economics from Ashoka University.

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