Justice A.P. Shah’s M.N. Roy Memorial Lecture

A good friend had forwarded me the full text of Shri. A.P. Shah’s M.N. Roy Memorial Lecture. You can find it here. The PDF of the speech is here.

Overall, it is a good lecture. I understand the need for someone of his stature to raise his voice against nascent signs of intolerance and suppression of dissent in insidious ways. That is very much needed too.

However,  I do have some differences – big and small.

How then did M.N. Roy understand nationalism? In Roy’s view, nationalism was representative of the desires and ambitions of a group of people within a certain geographical area, as opposed to people uniting on the basis of class. Nationalism thus emphasised the placing of one’s country’s interest over the interest of the rest of the world. There was a time in the 19th century, when countries were still isolated from each other, when nationalism was a historic necessity, under whose banner people came together and humanity progressed. However, he believed, it had now become a selfish, narrow-minded “antiquated cult”, and the world should progress towards internationalism and international cooperation.

Nationalism in the context of the rise of China and Pakistan, the manner of their rise, their systematic and persistent hostility to India combined with their use of the social media and other pecuniary motivations, is not outmoded. Unfortunately, that is also going to give rise to inevitable restrictions on the concept of ‘benefit of doubt’ to spontaneous, agenda-less dissent.

In other words, Indians have to accept certain (that can be defined) restrictions in their exercise of fundamental liberties. The State machinery will try to take advantage of the situation to place restrictions on domestic political dissent. But, Courts, civil society and the media should and would play the role of ‘checks and balance’. In any case, Justice A.P. Shah seems alive to that risk.

While discussing the declaration made by the President of the Hindu Maha Sabha that “the majority is the nation”, Roy said that it sounds quite in “tune with formal democracy”, but in reality “particularly in the prevailing atmosphere of Indian politics, it means that in a nationally free India the Muslims, constituting nearly 1/3rd of the population, will have no freedom”.

​If some sections constituted one-third and hence had to be accepted as an integral part of India – a very fair point – then it is not consistent with preferential treatment as minorities. The State cannot mandate that they shall have the first claim on India and that they be exempt from RTE provisions, for example. One cannot have the cake and eat it too.

But, the speech does leave a feeling of deliberate incompleteness when it talks of how a group of twenty-something students of a University could be tried for charges of sedition for doing what the students in a campus would do:

More than 90 years later, however, we are still grappling with the fact that the crime of sedition was invoked against a group of 20-something University students for doing what students in a campus should feel entitled to do – raise slogans, debate, disagree, and challenge each other on complex, political issues that face the nation today.

Clearly, the State should have had the nous to separate slogan-shouting from explicit anti-national activities. At the same time, the learned Justice should have noted that the shoe is on the other foot too when it comes to the charge of intolerance. The students prevented and still do prevent alternate points of view.

If nationalism cannot be compelled – and I agree with that without qualification – then is it justifiable that anti-nationalism can be compelled on national soil as some sections of the society want?

If voluntary groups of people – like students – can resort to violence (in America, now left-liberal students even consider words as violence) to stop alternative points of view, then it becomes that much more untenable for critics to blame the State alone for resorting to violence on which it is supposed to have a monopoly!

The speech would have been more complete had he also acknowledged the special circumstances that India finds itself in – an assertive and threatening China and its poodle Pakistan, the global rise of Islamic terrorism, Naxals and Maoists and the exploitation of these fissiparous tendencies by Christian Missionaries – that places the State and the army in a uniquely difficult position, etc.

Some law and order excesses would be inevitable in such situations and they should be redressed and addressed. That said, they do not negate nor nullify the need for vigilance by the State. That would be a very naive call.

Kamal Hassan in his movie, ‘Nayakan’ asks the question of who should stop first. That applies here.

M.N. Roy’s so-called and apparent context-free commitment to certain ideals definitely had a context. Anyone who claims that they were not influenced by the context in which they lived is lying. Similarly, any message that does not take into account the context in delivering eternal homilies is an incomplete one.

Indeed, all those who speak pejoratively of nationalism are able to do so only within the sanctuary offered by certain nations. That they cannot do so in all nations is a comprehensive rejection of their rejection of nationalism.

Finally, both at a micro-level – families, small groups and communities – and at the national level, compulsion is usually counter-productive. So, I agree with this part of the speech fully:

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, the order fails to understand a distinction fundamental to liberal democracy – everything that is desirable or makes for a better citizen does not, and should not, be made compulsory. In fact, making something compulsory undermines the very meaning of that action and the respect that is normally accorded to it.

Surgical writing

Ashley Tellis’ piece in MINT on India’s options with Pakistan. He points to the United States’ failure to rein in Pakistan.

Supporting insurgencies within Pakistan, engaging in economic warfare, pursuing focused retaliation to punish Rawalpindi, or threatening major military action to induce external pressure on Pakistan then remain the only means left for neutralizing Pakistani terrorism. (Here he is talking about options for India).”

“It is indeed frustrating that even after suffering Pakistani duplicity on terrorism for over a decade now, successive US administrations have been unable to threaten Pakistan with anything more persuasive than the suspension of petty carrots.”

“That the US, the world’s greatest power and Islamabad’s biggest benefactor, seems unable to do much about these perils darkens the prospects for hope in South Asia—not Narendra Modi’s token slap against Pakistani terrorism. [Link]

His piece appeared in MINT even as there has been one more terrorist attack on a civilian building (a government building of the Enterprise Development Institute) in Pampore.

Brahma Chellaney too points the finger at the United States:

US President Barack Obama’s administration also opposes a move in Congress that would officially brand Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.

The US has a lot of leverage: Pakistan has one of the world’s lowest tax-to-GDP ratios, and is highly dependent on American and other foreign aid. It should use that leverage to ensure that the Pakistani military is brought to heel – and held to account. [Link]

Brahma’s piece has several interesting references. Worth checking out some of them.

Dr. Sashi Tharoor has praised the Indian government’s surgical strikes. See, for example,

Still, a country that refuses to suffer repeated body blows earns more respect than one whose restraint can be interpreted as weakness. [Link]

That was exactly the point that some of the columns written before India undertook its surgical strikes (in the week of September 26) missed. The most notable and disappointing example was that of Praveen Swami.

In contrast, Raja Mohan had a more thoughtful piece and Pratap Bhanu Mehta was more restrained than usual in his scepticism of government’s intentions and capabilities.

I reiterate that these three pieces were in the week before the strikes.


Bigotry and Selective Outrage – 1

There are times to disagree with PBM. There are times to agree with him. This is, in my view, the time for the latter. He has written rather cogently, clearly, sharply and angrily on this one. Similarly, there is a Shekhar Gupta’s piece here.

If the facts are as mentioned, there is no justification for delay and equivocation and moral equivalences.

That said, all those who express outrage must still do their own home work. That means remembering two things:

(1) Indian media does not report all such incidents with equal promptness, passion, creativity and commitment to truth. So, you react to what they want you to react. If you do not understand this, it is time you picked up Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. Despite knowing enough about how ‘framing’ of issues influences our response, we continue to be victims of media framing issues and thus framing us!

Just think about why India’s secularism, unity and integrity were not threatened and why you did not take to Twitter when Pandits in Kashmir were raped, plundered and their places of worship ransacked and destroyed. Because, no one wrote a column in stirring prose.

The problem, in the end, is not selective reaction. It is worse. The outcome is more bitterness, more division and more disagreements and less liberal attitudes and values. There is more intolerance and hence, more bigotry. Is that what one wants to achieve with his/her self-righteous reaction? Calm reflection would help them choose the right response with the right timing and in right measure.

(2) You do not have access to full facts of the case. Sometimes, it is better to spend time gathering facts than taking to Twitter immediately to express outrage.

Rebooting institutions

I came across this interesting and insightful (as usual) interview of Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi carried by MINT Asia. This particular observation caught my attention and made me reflect on it:

You will have to reboot institutions and institutional practices, although you have to be careful about using the word institutions in the Indian context. Politicians are using the word institutions as a way of displacing responsibility.

Somebody has to take decisions for these institutions to be rebooted—someone has to say very clearly that we don’t do business this way any more. So, in that sense, there is a role for the political leadership.
I am glad that he added this clarification because institution building is so nebulous and abstract for many. A lot of people talk about respecting and building institutions but never choose to go further. Institutions are not self-created. Humans  – with all their faults – have to do the job. Politicians in office have a greater responsibility. It is a hallmark of leadership to build and nurture institutions that outlive themselves and their successors and that function with a degree of autonomy and competence so that when politicians (or, rulers) are confused and are looking for direction, the institution provides the anchor, the continuity and the wisdom. Good institutions, thus, play a big role in good governance and in maintaining and enhancing social stability.
Here is a partial list of the tasks involved in good institution building :
(1) For example, if the Parliament is to enact good laws that stand the test of time and fairness, then Parliamentarians must be law-makers and not law breakers. They must be qualified (and not just in their educational attainments) to pass laws that they expect citizens to comply with. So, they should not be criminals.
(2) They should respect their status as members of the Parliament and attend sessions. They should prepare for debates as students are expected to do, for their assignments.
(3) They should appoint competent people for regulatory authorities. Regulatory institutions should be insulated from political influence.  Decisions of regulatory institutions should not be tampered with, by politicians. Aggrieved parties should be encouraged to approach the proper appellate channels rather than expect the executive to overrule regulatory authorities.
(4) Government should set an example in complying with regulatory authorities’ directives
(5) Government should not make the tenure of regulatory authorities an instrument to coerce them to make arbitrary decisions.
(6) The government should not litigate citizens and the courts till the last drop.
(7) Government must set an example in honouring Supreme Court judgements. Laws should not backdated to overrule or annual the judgements of the highest court of the land.
(8) The government must consult the Leader of the Opposition on key decisions, legislation and appointments even if there is no formal need for it.
(9) Regulatory institutions and the judiciary must set an example in transparency of conduct, fairness of rulings and in accountability as they expect the regulated, to do so.
(10) Processes of appointments to judiciary, to technocratic institutions and to regulatory authorities should be insulated from political processes and the criteria for selection should be as transparent, objective and clear to the public.
(11) The government should not voice opinions on what the regulatory authorities should be doing nor should the government pre-judge their actions and decisions.  Those are coercive behaviour.
(12) The government and politicians must respect the constitutional checks and balances and allow such agencies to do their jobs while responding to their criticisms/observations in a dignified manner as per procedures laid down.
In sum, respecting institutions’ decisions and processes are important aspects of nurturing them.
As I had mentioned earlier, this is only a  partial list.  There may be other important aspects of ‘institution building and nurturing’ that I have left out.  Readers are welcome to add.
Those who aspire for leadership positions should be questioned on their commitment to the above and they must subject themselves to scrutiny of their conduct in these aspects. This must be an acid test of those who aspire for leadership position at all levels of government – Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, Mayors, Panchayat leaders, Chief justices, regulatory chiefs and heads of technocratic institutions (e.g, RBI), etc.