(Ram Madhav of BJP and Shashi Tharoor of Congress differ on their perception on India and its foundations. Below is a debate between the two, conducted by Rahul Kanwal of India Today, transcribed by Bhumika Arora. Readers could watch it here.)
Rahul Kanwal: Why do you believe the new India that your party is creating is in India that takes our country in the right direction? There are international reports that are coming out saying India is heading in a totalitarian direction. This is India, which is divided. Yours is a government where minorities are not being taken care of, in the light of all these charges, why is it that you’re firm of the view that India is going in the right direction?
Ram Madhav: Firstly about idea of India. We believe that the idea of India is that there will be many ideas of India. The only idea on which we all should agree is that we are all Indians and that there should not be any dispute. Otherwise, there will be many ideas of India
Now, my idea of India is wrong and your idea of India is, right or the vice versa should not be the argument of anybody. Neither my nor Mr Tharoor’s party. I have an idea of India, as does my party, which is a strong united prosperous and secure India with dignity as a very important component. When I say dignity, the dignity of the country at one level but the dignity of every individual whether he is in India or outside.
Yes, sometimes there will be issues. It’s you refer to some of these criticisms from abroad. You know, the majority of the critics admit, that India’s political system is very vibrant, even including the Freedom House report.There are many political parties. They are free to operate. They are free to criticize. Their electoral system is very good.
They find some problem with respect to certain areas like as you mentioned minorities and Civic rights. In that, I feel that there is a lot of exaggeration that happens resulting in certain perceptional issues. It’s not enough for us as a government to dismiss them. You know, I see a tendency to dismiss the perception, who are you to sermonize us? that’s not correct. It’s important for us as a government and another party to try and correct that perception because that perception is wrong. I do not believe that if Freedom House mentions that the Indian judiciary is biased. I’m sure even Shashi Tharoor will not agree. We all have to be careful about how the perception is being created.
Rahul Kanwal: Dr Tharoor, the BJP contest’s, the charge of India becoming an elected autocracy saying, we win because we beat you, not because the idea of India is wrong India, or because we are taking India in the wrong direction. We’re taking India in the right direction, which is why election, after the election, the people of India, the voters of India, vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Shashi Tharoor: When Ram says that there are many ideas of India. Yes, that’s entirely fair, many Indians are, many Indians and everyone may have their own vision, but there is one core idea of India, which is the idea enshrined in the Constitution. What is that idea? Remember, our nationalist movement, didn’t split on Marxist versus Capitalism, wasn’t an ideology, didn’t split on region, north versus south. It split on one issue alone and there is whether religion should be the determinant of nation group, those who said their religion, determine the nationality, they created Pakistan and left the country, but the remaining founding fathers and mothers as it were of our national struggle said, no, we have fought for the freedom of everyone and we must create a country for everyone and you read the constituent assembly debates, which I would recommend strongly to Ram. It’s really worthwhile. Then you’ll find that these core issues with debated, somebody actually stood up and said now, they’ve created Pakistan for the Muslims, why don’t we call ourselves in State for the Hindus? This was thrashed out and overwhelmingly rejected because the argument was that the essential core civilizational idea of India is one that embraces difference, has embraced people of very many different backgrounds, languages, ethnicities religions, and so on. And therefore they should all have equal rights. The Constitution, you can take out the word secular from the Constitution as some friends on the other side want to do, will still be a secular Constitution because it says you have the right to freedom of expression. You have the freedom of worship. You have freedom of religion, and the freedom to propagate religion. All this is enshrined in the Constitution and the fundamental rights of Indians. So one word will not change anything. This is a core idea of India that we are a plural society. I mean, I had an argument with Mohan Bhagwat a couple of years ago. My incantation of the whole unity in diversity slogan, India is not a Melting Pot but a thali where a collection of different dishes on the same platter, each dish tastes different. So it’s in a separate bowl, it doesn’t flow necessarily to the next bowl, but they combine together on that same platter. So that is my idea that diversity is integral to our Unity. But Mr. Mohan Bhagwat says no, no, no, it’s diversity in unity. That is a, we are sort of Khichdi, we are a saffron Khichdi, nicely stirred together. They might be a piece of potato and carrot here and there but it is one unity where an amount of diversity, can be tolerated. Now that fundamental difference goes to the heart of this question of the idea of India. So to my mind, when we celebrate India, we celebrate a country. For example, when the Pakistani generals, in 1971, were foolish enough to declare a Jihad against the Infidel, who was confronting them? We had an army headed by a Parsi General Jamshedji Manekshaw. The Air Force in the northern sector was headed by Muslim, Air Marshal Hamid Rashid. The general officer commanding in Calcutta, whose troops marched into Bangladesh, was a Sikh, General Jagjit Singh Aurora and the major-general helicopter into the Dhaka to negotiate the surrender of the Pakistanis was Jewish, General JFR Jacob. That is India. Who on Earth can say to a person of a different language, different religion different background, that he doesn’t
have any equal stake and yet the advocates of Hindu Rashtra argue, and they have argued in writing for decades that the fundamental difference is that these people who wrote the Constitution, they seem to assume that India is a territory and the constitution written for all the people on that territory. Wrong they said and when I say they, I mean Savarkar, Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the Holy Trinity of Hindutva thought. A nation is not a territory, and nation is a people. And the people of India are the Hindu people and the Constitution should have reflected this understanding. Now, that is the fundamental Gap. My idea of India is not mine. It’s the idea of the Constitution. Yours is the idea of those who rejected the Constitution, rejected the fundamental tenets of the freedom struggle, a struggle in which that side did not participate.
Ram Madhav: Let me take it from there. Broadly, the description he gave about India from a pilot to the president of India, nobody has any dispute. It happened under every regime. We made Abdul Kalam the president of India, but that doesn’t mean we made, it means we followed India’s constitutional, not only constitutional age-old tradition of Sarva Dharma Samabhava. We don’t discriminate on the basis of religion. That has been the core of Indian thinking. Now, we should give up smugness that we have read Constitution, Nobody else has read constitution debates. May ask a simple question? When the constituent assembly debates happened. I am sure he must know all the things within pages. When the constituent assembly debates happened, some people wanted reference to God. It was rejected. Some people wanted this word secularism to be inserted. That was also rejected. So don’t have smugness that I have not read. I have also read So point is then why was it decided that we don’t need the word secularism in the Constitution?
Because Jawaharlal Nehru himself had on record said, you please refer to constituent assembly debate. He says, India is a very diverse country. We have to respect all the different traditions, practices, cultures and customs. That is why there is no need. In any case, India have always respected all the religions. You don’t need to insert secularism into our constitution. Especially India is a secular by character. That is Hindu character we are saying. You say no that’s not Hindu character Indian character. I don’t have any issue but don’t say that India has secularism only because Constitution has given us that idea. So it did not give us 1947. It was backdoor insertion during emergency 1976 by Indira Gandhi, even then we don’t had a dispute. You want people to be secular. You ran governments, which are thoroughly communal. You made acts on communal lines. And you are teaching secularism to whole country? You are saying, Hindu Rashtra is communal. They the most liberal idea which even makers of constituent assembly admitted that this country by very character is secular. There is no need for that word to be inserted. That is the idea of India to which we are wedded. And let me tell you, the entire constituent assembly debates, the draft constitution that has come out from there to this day they do not prefer India as one nation. Do you know?
The preamble says, “We the people of India.” First article of the Constitution describes India as a union of states not nation and that was not discussed. Let me give you my gyan of constituent assembly also. So, Ambedkar is his last speech tells the constituent assembly that see people told me that why, are you helping America? Ambedkar said people told me, Call it We, the nation of India or We the Indian Nation, but I refuse to accept that suggestions because we are yet to be a nation. This was Ambedkar’s view at that time, which prevailed. Ambedkar had a point. He said this consciousness of nationhood is missing, the word. He used as a spiritual idea. Now spiritual as per his (Mr Tharoor) definition is anti-Secular. Ambedkar said, we have too much into caste, too much into language, too much into regions. That has to go to a spiritual idea of national consciousness in this country. This constitution should strive towards that. We are wedded to that constitution of the constituent assembly, not these new interpretations of it.
Shashi Tharoor: I mean, I don’t think there’s any disagreement in the point I’m not disagreeing with Ram. But as long as we both converge on that interpretation. One of the challenges is this use of Hindutva and the use of religious identity as a marker of Indianness. That is where the problem comes. Because it, by default excludes those who, for whatever reason, historical accident, whatever you want do not fit into that level. I mean, there are Christians in my state of Kerala who has been Christian for longer than most Hindu families have been conscious of Hinduism. There are people of every faith in our country who have contributed to the building of the Indian nation. And we have as much of a right to be stakeholders in it as those who consider themselves Hindus as you and I do. So the point is that as long as we recognize that then the term that excludes those who do not subscribe to one particular religion should also be avoided.
Ram Madhav: That’s what I’m saying. The original Hindu idea of this country never excludes anybody. That is the reason why even be makers of constituent Assembly felt there is no need to specially insert secularism in our constitution because we by character, by Nature, the whole edifice of the society is very secular, When Mahatma Gandhi, described himself as a Sanatani Hindu, was he communal?
How Nehru describes India was purely in cultural terms, religious terms. And it’s another matter. We introduced this false debate, starting with the 70s because we needed to curb the rise of an alternative ideology in this country. It was rising from the 70s onwards. So we invented a new controversy that you are not secular. Your Hindutva is communal. We are saying no we have that Hindu which reflected in the first constitution of India, which carries the photographs of Rama, Krishna, and Bhagwad Gita. That is what we stand for.
Rahul Kanwal: Now one of the key tenets of the idea of India is free speech and dissent. there it is alleged. Mr. Madhav, that your government has a problem with dissent and dissenters and somehow you wish to usurp the use of the word National and anti- National label to anybody who disagrees with you as an anti-national Is the space for Dissent is shrinking under your watch?
Ram Madhav: I said it before, I’ll say it again that we should not use words like anti-national too loosely. I agree. My side also. Any side also, we should not easily throw that kind of allegation against people too easily. And in fact, I am one of those who said that these archaic laws of sedition should be amended, should change. And let me tell you those who says there is no freedom of speech in India, go on to the WWW- world wide web. The amount of scorn you find against our government, our prime minister. You won’t find anywhere else against anybody else. Total freedom. Where is the restriction in this country? You have websites dedicated to abusing BJP and Modi . Dedicated. And let me also caution you. The Freedom House report says Indian media is compromised. That is the yardstick. I’m sure you don’t agree with that. I hope you don’t agree with that. That Indian media is sold out to the government of the day. We have as many people in any media who take totally anti-BJP stand. So I don’t at all agree with this proposition that freedom is at stake in India. Now nationalism versus Freedom. New debate, the nationalist forces versus freedom. Where is the problem? From last 70 years I have been abused day in and day out as a communist. Today, If I say one sentence, you become agitated. Sometimes things get back to you. “Thoda tolerance rakho” (have some tolerance), nothing, no threat to freedom in India.
Rahul Kanwal: let’s address the charge of India becoming an electorate autocracy to which bjp’s response is . We win elections. We work hard. We not taking Off to Italy We are on the ground 24/7 working hard. It is the voters of this country who voted for us. And if you can’t fight, that’s your loss is not because they’ve bent the system of fixed the EVM to win.
Shashi Tharoor: I’m personally not sitting here challenging the will of the Indian people or the Electoral majority within our system, which the BJP has won twice nationally and multiple times in various States. The political results are fine. It’s what you do with that political power, when you have won it, you won it in the name of the people. How do you exercise it? That is the question that has been concerning all of us in which precisely has led to this kind of agitation in international circles that are concerned about democracy. From India’s point an India in which every Indian feels equally valued, Opportunity to progress, and creates a decent life for that person and their family, that’s all that any of us can aspire. This government. unfortunately has accompanied this with a series of measures from the Citizenship Amendment act to various shall we say the things it has done in the things that are condoned, including cow vigilantism, which has cost lives, mob lynching which have cost lives, arrests sedition charges, all of these things have naturally got on.
Ram Madhav: Let me tell you that all these issues are law and order issues dealt by respective state governments. In India, more than half of the state permits are not in our hands, and blaming Modi for cow vigilantism is something. I know of Karnataka where people were arrested for acting in an anti-constitutional manner against the law and order that steps are taken. Yes, But you hold Modi responsible for it. How does it work? I totally disagree with you If you say that CAA is discriminatory, I would urge you to explain how it is discriminatory?
Shashi Tharoor: Because it mentions religion. See, the entire point is our constitution is religion-neutral. Had we said that refugees from neighbouring countries will be granted asylum or will be admitted into a process in which the claim asylum can be adjudicated, the world would have welcomed us and applauded us. By actually specifying religions in order to exclude one, We were actually dealing with it deeply obnoxious way.
if you’re saying that by being a Muslim, you cannot be an Indian. What are you saying to the history of the Muslim people of this country? This is simply wrong and it’s not what India is about you. I have written an entire book and why I am Hindu so I’m not in any way, disparaging the great accommodative all-embracing nature of Hinduism, but Hindutva is a distortion of Hinduism and has become an ideology that excludes an oppressive in most obnoxious way.
Ram Madhav: It’s a very fashionable argument to distinguish between Hindutva and Hinduism very old, not started with you much before it was started. There is no difference. Both are the same idea. But I come to the important point that you were making about, Citizenship Amendment act. Let me reiterate that it’s not at all discriminatory. We will also argue in the Supreme Court how it is not discriminatory. Let me take two minutes to explain why it is not
This bill was an unfinished agenda from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru 1952 the Nehru-Liyaqat agreement. 1972 Indira–Mujib accord, both have agreed that minorities who had migrated to either side they would be taken care of, by the respective governments. In 1972, Indira, Gandhi specifically stated that the Bangladeshi minorities, who were forced out of Bangladesh in 1972. I mean, nobody should have any illusion that the majority of Muslims were thrown out there. Only minority Bangladeshis were pushed out of those territories. That time it was agreed in 1972 that, okay India will take care of the responsibility of those who have already migrated and Mujibur Rahman will take care of those who are already living remaining inside. Bangladesh. That was the understanding. What we did was that we completed that commitment. We made a law that would only fast-track, the citizenship of these minorities who had come over into India. Now no muslim has denied any citizenship Adnan Sami who secured citizenship from our government is a Pakistani Muslim, where did we deny any citizenship?
Why we use 6 religions, not Muslims, sir, when you make any constitutional law, words have to be defined. There is a reference to minorities in our neighbouring countries. Are you trying to tell me that Muslims are a minority in Pakistan? Muslims are a minority in Bangladesh?
The only definition was given in this that when we said minorities in the law, it defines that these are the known minorities.
Somebody else has every right to take citizenship in India. He has to fulfill 12 years of this category and one very important point If one Hindu comes on after 1st January 2015, he is not entitled to take citizenship under this law. Where it is discriminating? You said pass a refugee law but what were you doing for 30 years? Why did you not do away with that?
You said the Supreme Court have said the sedition law should go but your government did not take it away why?
Rahul Kanwal: Instead of worrying about what the Congress should have done when they were in power with sedition, you now have the biggest majority of all time. You finish the sedition. If you think sedition is wrong, end the law.
Ram Madhav: No, definitely parliamentary majority is one part. I am one person who believes that a parliamentary majority is only a part of the democracy, not a full democracy. Full democracy is, when media is active. When judiciary is active. These are the balancing non-elected balancing institutions. Together We constitute what we call as democracy, our Constitution. Then we started our democracy where the elected Parliament will do its job. We are doing, you have questions. go either to the people back, which you cannot go. In Tamil Nadu. Also, where you were a ruling party. You can’t go back to people