Uphold dialogue, not division: India engages the world in dialogue, why can’t we engage each other on domestic issues?

A dangerous aspect of the corrosive and widespread social and political confrontation we see in India today is the absence of true dialogue. Consumed by the correctness of their thinking and cause, no one is engaging anyone on the opposite side. All are busy talking past each other. Their messages and postures are not directed at finding solutions, but at shoring up their credentials with the like-minded.

India’s current internal difficulties and external challenges demand sincere attempts to bridge ideological divides, at least in some measure. The mobilisation of large segments of the population by each side carries the risk of great social turbulence, which will lead to deep rifts causing enduring damage to the national fabric. But are those questioning the motives, patriotism and nationalism of their fellow Indians, sometimes in foul and occasionally venomous language, conscious of these dangers?

The prevailing retreat into fortresses with drawbridges up, is illustrated in a recent letter on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) and the National Population Register (NPR) to “fellow citizens” by a “Constitutional Conduct Group” of 106 retired civil servants each with a distinguished record of service. The Group wants the repeal of CAA and government to abandon its intentions on the NPR and NRIC inter alia for the apprehensions all three have generated in the country’s Muslim community. In the context of the contradictory statements of government ministers on these issues, the Group notes that Indian citizens are “bewildered” and fearful “more so when government has not entered into any dialogue on this issue”.

Illustration: Ajit Ninan

Having noted the absence of a reaching out by government on these issues – clearly a heavy onus for doing so, including to the Muslim community, does rest on the government – the question is if the Constitutional Conduct Group did so itself? The letter mentions issues which government needs to clarify. Among them are the seeming contradictions between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s position and those taken earlier by home minister Amit Shah on the NRIC exercise, the media reports on detention centres and the real response to CAA in neighbouring and other countries.

On all these issues did the Group reach out to concerned senior civil servants, including the Cabinet, foreign and home secretaries for ascertaining facts and a quiet exchange of views? These informal and always ‘confidential’ channels of communications in the civil service community are especially needed in contentious times.

They benefit the political executive too by making perceptions of experienced people known to them through the mechanism of the civil service. On their part, concerned senior civil servants should especially reach out, at this stage, to their retired colleagues so that they are given accurate positions.

Politicians will play the political game. But does that preclude the maintenance of a constant and below-the-radar dialogue on matters of vital concern to the nation, particularly if they are controversial? It seems that is not taking place now.

The ruling alliance and the opposition are only exchanging harsh words, including personal comments and the questioning of motives. In this context it is worth recalling that now defence minister and then home minister Rajnath Singh said on Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary in 2015 that while he could not agree with many of Nehru’s policies, he could never doubt his intentions. He went on to say that he did not look at Nehru in the political but in the national mirror.

It might be too much to ask the latter of the political class but would it be so of the former? At this contentious stage in India’s national life political leaders across the board need to imbibe the distinction that Rajnath Singh made between niti (policy) and niyat (intention). A beginning could be made by Rahul Gandhi conceding that it was wrong of him to say Pradhan Mantri chor hai during the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign and for the BJP to assert that the patriotism of the Congress leadership is not in doubt. Would it be naive to hope that this may set in motion the processes for meaningful dialogue on current issues and respective national visions?

CAA and NRIC raise issues which go to the core of the principles of India’s polity and society. They require serious academic examination, analysis and debate among scholars with contending views on the issues. Indeed, some social scientists have made learned contributions through their public writings on both matters. But it would be preferable if face-to-face discussions take place in seminars and conferences on these issues. Certainly, the statement of objects and reasons accompanying the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill provides rich material for such academic probing for the principle it advances, those it seemingly rejects and the assumptions it makes.

The constitutional validity of CAA will be tested in the Supreme Court. But that should not impede direct discussions among academics on the issue of validity of religion becoming a basis for grant of Indian citizenship even for persecuted minorities of some theocratic states. Such states are inherently discriminatory but does that inevitably lead to their intrinsic nature becoming persecutorial of minorities? Should state religions be treated as monolithic, overlooking schisms and consequent discrimination and even persecution of those following other interpretations of the faith?

As India is vigorously engaging the world it is ironic that the same impulse is lacking among leaders in different sectors of national life to dialogue with those with differing views on domestic issues.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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