"Let us continue to complain, demand and rebel."

It was these eight words that stood out in President Pranab Mukherjee’s 1,487-word long address to the nation on the eve of India’s 67th Republic Day.

In his speech, the president listed the country’s achievements and asked people to applaud them. But his exhortation to his compatriots to treat complaining, demanding and rebelling as virtues of democracy is what makes this speech stand out from the usual celebratory sermons that people do not even bother to listen or read.

The significance of the president’s words cannot be missed when read in the backdrop of what senior functionaries of the incumbent government have been saying in recent months.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing graduating students of the Ambedkar University in Lucknow last week, invoked the Dalit icon. He talked about Ambedkar’s struggles and travails, and said his refusal to complain was what made him great. His tough experiences did not make him bitter, and instead of complaining and criticising, Ambedkar dedicated himself to the task of nation building.

Modi’s speech echoed the remarks of Union home Rajnath Singh at a debate during the winter session of Parliament on rising intolerance in the country. Singh cited Ambedkar to run down actor Aamir Khan, who had sparked controversy after saying that his wife had discussed leaving India because she felt unsafe in the country.

Singh said that Ambedkar had faced insults and humiliation but had never contemplated leaving the country; he endured and chose to remain in India.

It is a different matter that Aamir Khan did not actually say that he or his wife wanted to leave India. He had only expressed disquiet that religious and cultural minorities were increasingly under attack for their food habits, lifestyles or increasing numbers.

Safeguarding democracy

Babasaheb Ambedkar, an icon of Dalit protest all over India, is now being moulded into a nationalist, as someone who drafted our constitution and framed laws. Our duty as citizens remains to follow those laws and serve the nation. It is only in this way can we be his true followers, according to prevailing narrative.

The act of criticism is central to democracy, which begins and ends with the people. Sovereignty ultimately lies with the people. The people are above the government, the state, and even the nation. There are no holy cows in a democracy.

In the recent past, since this government came to power, criticism has been seen as a seditious act and efforts have been made to criminalise and outlaw it.

We have heard the spokespersons of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the Union government attack late Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula and his colleagues for criticising the hanging of 1993 Mumbai serial blasts convict Yakub Memon. We were asked not to sympathise with Vemula, who committed suicide last week, as he was espousing an anti-national cause.

It is this context, in which the people – especially those from the most oppressed sections – are being told to be good, non-complaining citizens. that the president’s words shine as a beacon of hope.

The president also makes other interesting points in his speech.

Reverence for the past is one of the essential ingredients of nationalism. Our finest inheritance, the institutions of democracy, ensure to all citizens justice, equality, and gender and economic equity. When grim instances of violence hit at these established values which are at the core of our nationhood, it is time to take note. We must guard ourselves against the forces of violence, intolerance and unreason.

In discussing the importance of showing reverence for the past, the president does not hark back to ancient times. He does not refer to some mythological past. According to him, it is the institutions of democracy that are our most valuable inheritance. The values we need to cherish and defend are the values of justice, equality, and gender and economic equality. These are very modern and democratic values. It is the institutional processes which ensure that these values are realised for the well-being of the people.

The president wants us to guard ourselves against the forces of violence, intolerance and unreason that undermine and destroy our institutional life.

Intolerance is the one word this government would not have wanted to figure in the president’s speech. It does not take extraordinary intelligence to know which forces of violence were being alluded to by the President.

Fountain of knowledge

As the President of India, Mukherjee also happens to be the Visitor of 114 central institutions. Teachers have been aggrieved by his silence on the recent developments at Hyderabad Central University. The last portion of his speech seeks to make amends. His convocation speeches often lament the failure of Indian universities to feature in the top 200 institutions of higher learning. On this occasion, he felt it necessary to say that to become world class, universities need approach knowledge differently:

An ecosystem that fosters critical thinking and makes teaching intellectually stimulating is necessary. It must inspire scholarship and encourage unfettered respect for knowledge and teachers. …. It must breed a culture of deep thought and create an environment of contemplation and inner peace. Through an open-minded approach to the wider spectrum of ideas emanating from within, our academic institutions must become world-class.

These statements are refreshing because the words “knowledge” and “critical thinking” feature in an official discourse after a very long time. We do not hear these words even on platforms such as the Indian Science Congress. The president argues for an open -minded approach to the wider spectrum of ideas. But this cannot be done if you are fettered by nationalism or culturalism.

The speech lifts itself to a higher plane by calling upon the people in general and scholars in particular to develop and inculcate a culture of deep thought and contemplation.

Theodore Adorno, in his essay Education After Auschwitz ponders the means to prevent the recurrence of atrocities against minorities:

I do not believe it would help much to appeal to eternal values, at which the very people who prone to commit such atrocities would merely shrug their shoulders. I also do not believe that enlightenment about the positive qualities possessed by persecuted minorities would be of much use. The roots must be sought in the persecutors, not in the victims, who are murdered under the paltriest of pretences.

Adorno further says:

It is not the victims who are guilty… .Only those who unreflectingly vented their hate and aggression upon them are guilty. One must labour against this lack of reflection, must dissuade people from striking outward without reflecting upon themselves. The only education that has any sense at all is an education toward critical self-reflection.

The President expresses an Adornian concern when he says:

Peace is the primary objective of a rational consciousness as well as our moral universe. It is the foundation of civilisation and a necessity for economic progress. And yet, we have never been able to answer a simple question: why does peace remain so elusive? Why has peace been so much more difficult to attain than degenerate conflict?

How do we educate for peace or against violence? What should be the aim of education? It should not be the production of nationalist, conforming subjects. It is, as the President says by quoting Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, to create a free and creative man.

The President is not a free man. He is aware that he is a creature of the state, that he has to speak on behalf of a government which is most conservative and illiberal in its outlook. Should the weakest and oppressed lose hope in the nation? The President, in his own way, has chosen to speak for an imagination of India, the yarns woven by the values of secularism, equality, justice, and asks us to fearlessly defend this imagination.