Even as millions of Indians rally to celebrate – with pride and gratitude – 70 years of India’s freedom, worrying reminders surfaced for the country’s religious minorities and oppressed castes and classes of how freedom continues to be stolen from them in the glittering India of today. Of how contested remain the promises of the Constitution made to them, its iridescent pledges of equality and freedom.

Two of these reminders came from men who hold the highest constitutional offices in the land – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das. The third came from the reeking depths of the dark sewers of the country’s sparkling capital.

The context of the first reminder of stolen freedoms was a speech that Hamid Ansari gave to law students in Bengaluru on August 7, days before he demitted office as India’s 12th vice-president, and an interview he gave thereafter to television anchor Karan Thapar that was telecast on Rajya Sabha TV on August 10, Ansari’s last day in public office.

In the first, Ansari spoke of the Constitution of India and its Preamble as “an embodiment of the ideals and principles” that he holds dear. He talked of Indianness, “not as a singular or exhaustive identity but as embodying the idea of layered Indianness, an accretion of identities”. He said that he believed that the challenge today “is to reiterate and rejuvenate secularism’s basic principles: equality, freedom of religion and tolerance, and to emphasize that equality has to be substantive, that freedom of religion be re-infused with its collectivist dimensions, and that toleration should be reflective of the realities of Indian society and lead to acceptance”.

Ansari went on to ask how do we go about “creating conditions and space for a more comprehensive realisation of the twin objectives of pluralism and secularism and in weaving it into the fabric of a comprehensive actualisation of the democratic objectives set forth in the Constitution?”

A commonplace suggestion, he observed, is the advocacy of tolerance. He said:

“Tolerance is a virtue. It is freedom from bigotry. It is also a pragmatic formula for the functioning of society without conflict between different religions, political ideologies, nationalities, ethnic groups, or other us-versus-them divisions.

“Yet tolerance alone is not a strong enough foundation for building an inclusive and pluralistic society. It must be coupled with understanding and acceptance. We must, said Swami Vivekananda, ‘not only tolerate other religions, but positively embrace them, as truth is the basis of all religions’.”

Ansari spoke of the urgency to cultivate both tolerance and acceptance of difference in the light of the “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians”.

He elaborated his concerns about this insecurity even more explicitly and poignantly in his interview with Karan Thapar in which he said that he felt troubled at the direction that Indian society has taken. He voiced his worries about the ever-mounting violence in the country that targeted minorities on the pretext of cow protection, and the rise of majoritarian-cultural nationalism. He said he often spoke of these concerns to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet. Asked what their response was, he replied, “Well, there is always an explanation and there is always a reason. Now it is a matter of judgement, whether you accept the explanation, you accept the reasoning and its rationale”.

After Ansari’s departure from the office of vice-president, persons committed to the ideology of the openly anti-minority Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh now hold the three highest offices in the country – the president, vice-president and prime minister. This despite the fact that the Muslim community comprises India’s largest minority of over 172 million people, the third largest population of Muslim people in any part of the world. In fact, the ruling BJP did not field even one Muslim candidate to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

(Photo credit: IANS).

When Modi responded

Following the concerns Ansari expressed just before he demitted office, it would have been healing to India’s minorities if Prime Minister Modi took the opportunity to reach out and reassure them. Even if he did not wish to speak words of reassurance and encouragement to them, he could have remained silent. While it is true that the subjects Modi chooses to be silent about can be as calculated as what he chooses to speak, lecture and hector about, silence, at least, could have been subjected to more than one interpretation. Instead the prime minister chose a frontal assault – deploying his trademark razor-sharp sarcasm and barely disguised communalised innuendo – to respond to Ansari’s concerns.

In a four-and-a-half minute diatribe in the Rajya Sabha on August 10, Modi mentioned Ansari’s long association with the Congress party and also his family’s support for the Khilafat Movement launched by Indian Muslims to urge the British government to preserve the authority of the Turkish Sultan as Caliph of Islam with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. He spoke of Ansari’s career as a diplomat in West Asian (read Muslim) capitals, and his responsibilities in “certain circles” (read the positions he held as vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and chairperson of the National Minorities Commission). Modi said he interacted only occasionally with the vice-president, but when he did it helped him realise “that things are not always what they seem to be”.

Modi said:

“In the last 10 years, your responsibility changed considerably, and you had to confine yourself strictly to the Constitution. You may have been internally agitated by this, but from today, you can speak, will have the freedom to speak, your mind and to think, speak and act according to your core set of beliefs”.

The innuendo was clear as if Modi had said the following words explicitly: “You think and feel like a Muslim rather than as an Indian, and this has characterised your entire career before you took office of the vice-president”.

Modi spoke of Ansari’s postings to Muslim countries during his career with the Indian Foreign Service, as though the postings were his own deliberately sectarian career choices rather than the result of the Government of India’s peculiar policy to post Muslim officers to Muslim-majority countries. The prime minister forgot that Ansari also served as High Commissioner to Australia and India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

Modi suggested that Ansari’s “core beliefs” are Islamic, if not Islamist, and that he was constrained by constitutional office to act on these beliefs. He also spoke of his sympathy for the Congress, which is seen as a pro-Muslim party. The prime minister did nothing at all to acknowledge that there is a real and mounting fear among Muslims, Dalits and Christians spurred by mounting vigilante and mob attacks on them and their places of worship. These fears were merely dismissed by the prime minister in his sarcasm-laden speech as the jaundiced view of a Congress-sympathetic non-nationalist Muslim, not the lived reality of millions of Muslims in the openly anti-Muslim, anti-Christian (and sometimes anti-Dalit) environment that his government, other BJP-led state governments, and the RSS and its affiliates have fostered.

Many BJP leaders added their voice to that of the prime minister. The RSS was even more explicit in the acerbity and derision of its rejoinder.

According to an Indian Express report, RSS leader Indresh Kumar, in a press conference, said: “He [Ansari] was secular for 10 years when he was in chair. Now he has become a fundamentalist (kattarpanthi) Muslim. He was Bharatiya now he has become communal. He was a leader of all parties but has now become a Congressman. For all these ten years, he didn’t feel insecure. He should point out any country in the world where Muslims are secure. I don’t feel Ansari should remain in trouble (taklif). So, he should head for any country where he feels he will be secure.”

Anonymous trolls in social media outdid even these attacks never mind that it is appalling to apply the charge of being a fundamentalist Muslim to a man who is so explicitly committed to the values and spirit of India’s pluralist Constitution.

The insult by the RSS, the Prime Minister, and several leading lights of the BJP, including Venkaiah Naidu, who succeeded Ansari to the office of the vice-president, was directed not simply at the former vice-president but to every Muslim who dares complain about the discrimination, violence and fear they now feel in the land of their birth, a land they love, and whose Constitution promises them equal citizenship. The message is that they must learn silence and acquiescence or be labelled as persons wanting in love for the country.

Intimidation in Jharkhand

Then, in the same week leading up to India’s 71st Independence Day, another constitutional functionary thought it fit to issue an equally stinging message to intimidate another religious minority, the Christians.

On August 11, a front-page advertisement funded by the government of Jharkhand in most newspapers in the state had a photograph of a beatifically smiling Mahatma Gandhi and a poisonous quote attributed to him, attacking Christian missionaries. The quote said:

“If Christian missionaries feel that only conversion to Christianity is the path to salvation, why don’t you start with me or Mahadev Desai? Why do you stress on conversion of the simple, illiterate, poor and forest-dwellers? These people can’t differentiate between Jesus and Mohammad and are not likely to understand your preachings. They are mute and simple, like cows. These simple, poor, Dalit and forest-dwellers, whom you make Christians, do so not for Jesus but for rice and their stomach”.

On the same page was a photograph of Chief Minister Raghubar Das.

By sheer coincidence, I was in Jharkhand the day this advertisement was published. That morning I was scheduled to give a lecture to a congregation of Christian nuns from all across India on the theme, The Idea of India – perhaps another coincidence. During the mid-morning tea-break during my lecture, several nuns, holding copies of the newspapers that had published the advertisement, spoke in low voices of their anguish and helpless anger at what they saw as clearly an open attack on the people of their faith.

The central issue is not whether Gandhi, in fact, made this statement or not. Apoorvanand, in an erudite article in The Wire, established that the quote from 1936 is a partial distortion and was deliberately pulled out of context. The larger context in which Gandhi made his observations, as Apoorvanand explains, was Gandhi’s anti-untouchability temple-entry movement juxtaposed against Ambedkar’s ringing call for 50 million Hindu untouchables to convert to an egalitarian religion like Sikhism, Islam or Christianity. Gandhi believed that untouchability is a distortion of Hinduism and sought to reform Hinduism, whereas Ambedkar was convinced that it is intrinsic to Hinduism and that therefore Hinduism is beyond reform. This is a debate that continues until the present day. Gandhi said some of the words attributed to him against this background in a debate with a Christian evangelist. He spoke indefensibly of Dalits being simple-minded, like cows, but not Adivasis. Gandhi was not opposed to conversions if they arose from personal faith, but not as a political instrument.

Even with these caveats, I am entirely at odds with Gandhi’s views in this debate. Gandhi was a devout practising Hindu, was opposed to cow slaughter, and felt that caste inequality and discrimination were not an essential path of Hindu teachings. On all these issues, I find myself much closer to Ambedkar’s teachings.

But at the same time, taking a more expansive and comprehensive view of the life, teachings and practice of Mahatma Gandhi, I believe that there is no leader who better embodies the humanist spirit of secularism as imagined in our Constitution of equal respect for every faith than Mahatma Gandhi. A man sympathetic to the ideology of the RSS took his life for precisely this reason. Today it is a tragedy (and not merely a farce) to witness a political party that is wedded to the ideology of the same RSS trying to reinvent Gandhi as a mascot of hatred and intolerance against minorities.

What is relevant here is not what Gandhi did or did not say. What is relevant is the Constitution. The Constitution defends the right of all Indian citizens to not just practice but also propagate their faith and beliefs. As Apoorvanand observes, it would be a different matter if the RSS had issued this advertisement. But this advertisement was issued, using public funds, by the elected state government to openly foster hatred and division among the Adivasi communities and against the Adivasi Christian community and their priests and missionaries. It is a transgression of the Constitution by a constitutional functionary, and a hate crime under the law of the land.

Significantly, just a day after the advertisement appeared, the Jharkhand state cabinet approved an anti-conversion bill, which contains severe penalties for conversion through allurement or coercion. In characteristic double-speak, this bill has been called the Religious Freedom Bill, 2017. It provides for a minimum jail term of three years and/or a fine of Rs 50,000, or both, for persons found guilty of converting people through allurement or coercion. In the case of a minor girl belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe being converted, the punishment will extend to four years in prison and/or Rs 1 lakh, or both.

The Jharkhand state BJP spokesperson Pratul Shahdev told the Indian Express in glowing defence of the Bill: “Forces out to disintegrate the society have been indulging in conversions over a long time. It is good that the Bill envisages tougher punishment for those involved in converting the members of the SC/ST community.”

Significantly, he added that even Mahatma Gandhi was not in favour of allowing conversion through allurement or coercion.

The RSS and BJP view the conversions of Adivasis only to Christianity as covered by this Bill, but have a completely opposite view of the Hinduisation of the Adivasis, which they do not regard to be conversions (whether by fraud or allurement or without these). The traditional Sarna faith of the Adivasis is, in fact, not Hindu. Ashok Bhagat of the RSS backed organisation Vikar Bharati said to the Indian Express that Sarnas are close to Hindus: “They worship nature, Hindus too worship nature”.

Sarnas constitute 12.84% of the population of Jharkhand, whereas Christians are 4.3% (according to the 2011 Census). It is likely that the same Adivasi families may have adherents to the Sarna faith traditions, Christianity as well as people who worship Hanuman and Ram. The danger of a draconian anti-conversion law will be that it will divide Adivasi communities, even families. In the end, the BJP hopes to reap a rich electoral harvest from the hostility it is fostering against the small, peaceful Christian minority in the state.

The hostility of the RSS and its affiliates to Christian minorities has a long history. But the state government has openly declared war against them by recruiting Mahatma Gandhi as their talisman for this battle.

Manual scavenging deaths

While Muslim and Christian minorities were reminded of their second-class citizenship by men in highest elected office, India’s Dalits are reminded of how little has changed in their social situation by the criminal apathy and indifference of governments and people to their intense daily humiliation and dangers to their lives, even as they are forced by caste and penury to pursue their caste-determined occupations in degrading, insecure, unsafe employment.

Three labourers died in Lajpat Nagar in South Delhi on August 6. They lost their lives because they inhaled poisonous fumes from a sewer they had been employed to clean, after they entered it without any safety gear.

Vishnu Mandal, a mason working near the accident site, told the Hindustan Times: “I heard the labourers shouting frantically to someone trapped inside the manhole. I rushed to see what was wrong…When I peeped inside, one man was lying motionless. He was already dead, but his friend wanted to help him and jumped inside. Within seconds, the second man too began suffocating and throwing his limbs around.”

According to the report, a third person then entered the manhole to attempt a rescue. Mandal said that the crowd that had gathered at the scene by then insisted that he only enter the manhole after tying himself to a rope. The report quoted Mandal as saying: “But this man did not want to waste time and entered the manhole by just holding on to the rope with his hand. Within seconds of entering, he began losing consciousness. I remember him trying to catch hold of one of the dead victims before passing out.”’

The deputy commissioner of police (South-East) identified two of the deceased men as Joginder, 32, and Annu, 28, but was unable to identify the third, a 25-year-old. They were declared dead at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, down the road from Lajpat Nagar.

Five days later, two brothers died inhaling toxic gases while cleaning a sewer in Aggarwal Fun City Mall, Anand Vihar, again in the national capital. Jahangir, 24, and Ijaz, 22, belonged to a family that survived by collecting waste and occasionally cleaning sewers. As his sons entered the manhole into the cesspool of human waste, their father Yusuf was at its mouth. He panicked when his sons stopped responding. By the time rescue operations were mounted, it was too late.

In the first case, the Delhi Jal Board chairperson, and Delhi government Water Minister Rajendra Gautam said that they were not responsible for the deaths. They said that the men had been employed by a contractor, who is on the run. The response was the same for the deaths in the mall sewers. Sunil Jain of Unity Group, a real estate company that owns the mall, told the Hindustan Times that cleaning operations were outsourced to a sanitation firm, and therefore the mall bore no responsibility for the deaths by asphyxiation of the sewer workers.

An municipal worker attempts to unblock a sewer in New Delhi. (Photo credit: AFP).

Even as the authorities in both cases refuse to take responsibility, more men in India will continue to be immersed neck-deep in human excreta, breathing toxic fumes in dark underground sewers, risking their lives every day so that we can live in clean cities.

No one cares that a law passed in 2013 – The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation – prohibits every local authority or any agency “from engaging or employing, either directly or indirectly [my italics], any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank”.

Under this law, a sewer means an underground conduit or pipe for carrying away human excreta.

The law makes it mandatory for every local authority and other agency to use appropriate technological appliances for cleaning of sewers, septic tanks and other spaces within their control with a view to eliminating the need for the manual handling of excreta in the process of their cleaning. Anyone who contravenes this law can be punished with jail sentences and fines.

But not one urban authority in the country has implemented this law. Instead, government and municipal authorities continue to casually and illegally contract out the cleaning of sewers to contractors who employ desperately poor men, usually from the lowest caste, to do this work at dirt cheap wages, without any job security and safety devices.

The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act is very clear that every local authority and other agencies (like the private mall owner) is responsible for complying with its provisions, even for the workers it indirectly employs, namely through contractors and sub-contractors. There are a host of other labour laws that are also violated by local authorities and private bodies that employ workers, directly or indirectly, without any labour rights and with no concern for their safety, health and dignity.

Sobering reminders

Even as I write this, more than 60 children from impoverished families died in a public hospital in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, after the oxygen supply ran out.

In these many ways, the days leading up to India’s 70th anniversary of its freedom, have been littered with sobering reminders of the myriad ways that freedom continues to be stolen from millions of India’s historically most oppressed peoples.

As we celebrate 70 years of freedom in India, these are sombre reminders to all of us that the struggle for freedom is still unfinished business. That from millions of our people, freedom has been stolen. That for millions of our people, freedom still remains just a word.

Relatives mourn the death of a child at the Baba Raghav Das Medical College hospital in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo credit: AFP)