Celebrating the Historical Significance of January | Blogs/Opinions
January is a particularly important month. It commemorates two of the world’s greatest martyrs and freedom fighters, who both walked the path of peaceful protest to free their people. As we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 15 and the martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, the month also marks another historic event: India’s birth as a secular democratic republic.
Although India became independent on August 15, 1947, it took almost two and a half years of laborious work by the drafters to formulate its Constitution. Drawing inspiration from the American constitution and other constitutions, the drafters had to devise a system that best suited India’s complex multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic society and its hundreds of fiercely independent regions and principalities.
A nation is linked by its history, its geography and its demography, and its politics by its sociology and its economy. The Constitution had to account for all these diverse and diffuse forces and entities, and instill in a newly born nation a sense of unity and community. That the task of merging is endless is reflected in the many amendments – more than a hundred – that Indian lawmakers had to inject into the original document.
Like the previous two Januarys, this January also comes at a particularly dark time for people around the world, with the latest variants of the Covid pandemic continuing to plague all nations, devastating their politics and economies and destabilizing their companies.
The world faces unique challenges not only from the persistence of the pandemic, but also from growing resentment against our leaders and political parties for their incompetence and ill-preparedness, but worse, for overstaying their mandates.
Throughout human history, the abuse of power by rulers has invariably resulted in popular unrest and the overthrow of monarchs, colonial powers and dictators. The trampling on of people’s rights and freedoms today, under the widely assumed mandate of Covid prevention, has resulted in regulations that encompass all sectors of society and the economy, including healthcare , education, workplace and places of worship, travel and transportation, sports and recreation, etc. Rightly or unfairly, these constraints on individual and collective behavior even threaten the rights of parents over the well-being of their children, and over their own bodies.
All this excess contributes to a disenchantment with democracy itself, giving a halo to Chinese and autocratic models of governance. Income and digital divides continue to undermine the credibility of the United States and other developed countries and confidence in their governance systems to effectively close the growing income gap. Already persistently poor, India’s underprivileged have been pushed further to the point of no return. By contrast, China’s success in recent years in lifting millions out of poverty and its ability to meet the challenges of Covid seem to give the Chinese style of government an edge over the democratic style.
Racial, religious, colonial and gender injustices – combined with the gap between the upper and lower classes – have always sparked popular unrest. With Covid’s recent and brutal exposure of how existing inequalities are accentuated during a health crisis, the push for more equitable societies has intensified. India and America face fiercer political unrest and angrier calls to level the playing field.
While the governments of both countries are reactive, they would do well to avoid the pitfalls of adopting drastic and nihilistic policies. In promoting change, they must not lose sight of both nations’ institutional commitment to nonviolence. Nor should they risk fostering behavioral cruelty and ideological madness.
Accepting equality for all is laudable and the right way forward. So it is with us Indians and Americans collectively rejecting the claim that we are all endowed with equal innate strengths and weaknesses. To expect uniformity of results regardless of merit and effort is to deny human aspiration and the threshold of excellence. We are equal but not identical. And denying our differences means forcing us to defend our differences.
Identity politics is the pandemic that is plaguing every country today. It deals a mortal blow not so much to Western values as to human aspirations and the desire to work harder to be better than others and ultimately be the best. Merit is not a burden to be discarded or sacrificed on the altar of equality and uniformity.
Likewise, victimization is a malaise that undermines our social coherence and our coexistence. In this highly charged and divisive WOKE era, whether in India or America, our past heritage is being renounced, and our stories are being revisited and rewritten from the sole perspective of victims and oppressors.
Just as Covid-phobia allows our political leaders to become more autocratic, victimology compels governments to choose one side over another. Turning the victims against the aggressors wins votes and power, but it does not protect national unity or individual freedom.
The freedom of a nation is meant to be a unifier and unifier of a people, and it is wrong to perceive it as a caste, race, or one-sided caste, race, or color specific experience and feel. Undoubtedly, not all periods of human evolution are rosy. Human history is filled with ups and downs – periods of exceptional grace and horribly tragic times when darker forces take over and tarnish our lives and our heritage.
There is nothing wrong with a nation acknowledging its past “sins”, but there is something undignified in damning all of its past and, worse, letting the wounds lie open and continue to bleed, allowing those who feel disenfranchised to portray the nation itself as unworthy and expendable.
(Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is a published author and Indian American opinion writer. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.)