Reflections on Republic Day

Republic Day 2016 is no occasion for celebration but one for somber reflection. The suicide of Dalit scholar and scientist Rohith Vemula is a grim reminder of the fact that India continues to live the “life of contradictions” that Dr. Ambedkar warned about 67 years ago: contradictions between formal political equality, and entrenched inequality in our social and economic structures.

The President’s speech on the eve of Republic Day, however, failed even to attempt to reflect on these contradictions. The President chose to quote Dr Radhakrishnan’s words, that the “End-product of education should be a free creative man who can battle against historical circumstances and adversities of nature." These words ring hollow and hypocritical as we remember Rohith Vemula’s anguish at the fact that as a Dalit, he could never be “treated as a mind” and was never allowed to overcome “the fatal accident of (his) birth.”

Education in India is shackled by caste discrimination. Dalit students are still subjected to segregation and untouchability in schools. 23 of out 25 cases of suicides in higher education institutions since 2007 were of Dalits. Drop-out rates of Dalits and others who suffer social and economic deprivations are high, with discrimination masquerading as ‘meritocracy’, and beneficiaries of reservations being branded “less deserving.” As the courageous students who raised slogans against the Prime Minister at the BR Ambedkar University convocation at Lucknow observed, Ekalavyas continue to be oppressed by Dronacharyas even today. How can the President’s words announcing “generational change” and proclaiming that “Youth have taken centre stage” have any meaning as long as idealistic and committed youth like Rohith – and those demanding justice for Rohith today – are hounded by those in power?

While protesting students, Dalits, peasants, women and common citizens demanding social and economic justice as well as Constitutional rights and liberties are indeed the best expression of the spirit of the Republic, it is ironic that they are being branded ‘anti-national’ by those ruling at the Centre. The Padma awards this year chose to reward many of those who had condemned the writers, artists and citizens who had returned awards to protest against State-sponsored bigotry.

It is a matter of concern that the official observance of Republic Day reduces citizens to spectators at a parade of military hardware. But it is even more of a concern that for the past two years, the Modi regime has turned it into a foreign policy event.

This year, for the first time ever, India invited foreign troops to lead the Republic Day parade. The French Army’s 35th Infantry Regiment’s colonial legacy (in particular, the invasion of Algeria in 1830 which was followed by fierce anti-colonial resistance) and its more recent imperialist legacy of invading Afghanistan in 2001 were highlighted in the Indian and international media, along with its joint counter-terrorism exercises with Indian Army personnel earlier this month. India’s Republic Day is a tribute to India’s anti-colonial resistance; and this legacy is deeply tarnished by a decision to honour this colonial-imperialist legacy. The question to be asked is, if India would next invite British troops that subjugated and massacred Indian anti-colonial fighters, to lead the Republic Day parade?

Modi’s choice of Republic Day guests – US President Barack Obama last year, and French President Francois Hollande this year – as well as this unprecedented decision to invite French troops to lead the parade, are worrying indications of the level on which India has begun to flaunt her strategic identification with Western imperialist powers and especially with the most aggressive champions of the ‘war on terror.’

At the same time, the Modi Government is also aggressively pursuing the ‘Make in India’ model, suppressing wages, safety measures, labour laws, environmental protections and industrial democracy and selling out India’s land and precious resources to woo Indian and foreign corporations. The notorious Rafale Deal as well as the Jaitapur Nuclear project, being pursued by Modi and Hollande, are symbolic of this devastating model. The moribund French company Dassault is being given a fresh breath of life by India’s offer to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets at a hugely inflated price. The protests of the peasants and fisher-people of Jaitapur, and pressing concerns of safety, livelihood and environmental protection are being ignored in order to push the French company Areva’s reactor, which even French regulators have deemed to have serious design flaws.

The core values of India’s Republic are being eroded rapidly by the Modi Government as it intensifies the assault on freedom to dissent, the rights and dignity of Dalits, women and minorities, and surrenders the interests of India’s citizens at the altar of corporate greed. It is the people’s movements in the country that are battling brutal repression and injustice to reclaim the republic.

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