What I write today is, in fact, a sequel to my column last week. It is a sequel because events about which I wrote have intensified and remain today the biggest challenge that the country faces, that of ensuring that our diverse polity and society remain intact and united, that of finding solutions rapidly to issues that threaten to divide the country.
In the middle of the sixties,all hell broke loose in Tamil Nadu on a perceived attempt by the then Congress government of Lal Bahadur Shastri to force Hindi down the throats of unwilling Tamils. This was not a new issue. As early as 1937-40, the Justice Party, headed by EV Ramasamy Naicker, called Periyar, had risen in protest against compulsory teaching of Hindi in schools, imposed by the Indian National Congress government headed by C. Rajagopalachari in the erstwhile Madras State. After Rajaji’s resignation, this decision was reversed by the British Governor. The Justice Party later metamorphosed into the Dravidar Kazhagam, which, in turn, gave birth to the DMK and the AIADMK.
Throughout the Independence Movement, throughout the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly, the issue of language gave rise to heated debates, many strongly expressed views. TT Krishnamachari said, in the Constituent Assembly, ““If we are going to be compelled to learn Hindi,I would perhaps not be able to learn it because of age and perhaps I would not be willing to do it because of the amount of constraint you put on me. This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary will also mean the enslavement of the people who do not speak the language at the Centre. I would, Sir, convey a warning on behalf of the people of the South for the reason that there are already elements in South India who want separation… and my honourable friends in UP do not help us in any way by flogging their idea of Hindi imperialism to the maximum extent possible.”
This issue was resolved by deciding that English will continue as official language for another fifteen years alongside Hindi. It came up again in the early sixties as the fifteen year period drew to a close. Nehru endeavoured to put a lid on it in 1963, continuing use of English as official language beyond 1963 through the Official Languages Act. CN Annadurai, DMK leader in the Rajya Sabha raised his voice against this legislation on the ground that it stated only that English may continue as official language, not that it shall continue.
Nehru died in 1964. The attempt made by the Congress government in Tamil Nadu to introduce legislation for adopting a three language formula led to widespread unrest. A Tamil Nadu Students Anti-Hindi Agitation Council was formed in January 1965. There was rioting,self-immolation. Official estimates talk of about 70 deaths, unofficial figures put the number at around 500. Other South Indian States also protested, although not on the same scale as Tamil Nadu. On 11 February, two Union Ministers, C. Subramaniam and OV Alagesan resigned, but their resignations were not accepted by President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. The same day, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri spoke on All India Radio stating unequivocally that Nehru’s assurances would be fully honoured. The agitation then subsided but surfaced again occasionally whenever there was a perception that Hindi would be imposed on the Tamils. The net result of the agitation was the extinction of the Congress party as an entity that could form and run a government in Tamil Nadu. Since then, Tamil Nadu has been ruled by either the DMK or the AIADMK.
The moral of the story is that it is necessary for every government to realise that India is a heterogeneous society, that it has to carry along all sections of the people, making room for huge divergences in language, culture, religion, even ethnicity. This is particularly relevant in the context of the upheaval that has taken place in the wake of the recently enacted Citizenship Amendment Act.
Social differences again came to the fore during the VP Singh government in the late eighties. The Mandal Commission had recommended in 1980 that 27% reservation in government jobs and public universities may be given to Other Backward Communities. VP Singh endeavoured to implement the recommendation. Again, there was a huge protest, led by the students of Delhi, soon spreading to other locations in the North. In September 1990, a Delhi student, Rajiv Goswami, attempted self-immolation. This was followed by self-immolation attempts in many other places like Hissar, Sirsa, Ambala, Lucknow,Gwalior, Kota and Ghaziabad. There was rioting and destruction of public property. This was a spontaneous uprising and the students largely prevented political leaders from taking advantage of the situation. LK Advani and Madan Lal Khurana of the BJP were not allowed to meet the parents of Rajiv Goswami.
VP Singh took a rigid stand. “ I wish to make it clear,”“he said, “that, should a situation arise in which I have to choose between a cause that I believe in so intensely and my chair, I will not hesitate for an instant to choose the former.” He was alone even in his Cabinet. India Today observed on 15 October, 1990, that a “ severe dysfunction had afflicted the government “as was evident from the fact that “ while Singh was absorbing the flak,Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, who is responsible for law and order, is virtually in hiding.”
The result was the same, the fall of the VP Singh government and the early disappearance of VP Singh from Indian politics. Reservation, however, was accepted and is now part of policy. With the slew of reforms that started in 1991, the economy expanded and dependence on government jobs and government educational institutions declined. Moreover, it came to be recognised that it was a correction of an inequality rather than an attempt to give an advantage to one section at the expense of another.
The issue that most resembles the current unrest was the Assam agitation of the late seventies and early eighties. In fact, what is happening presently in Assam can be considered to be a direct result of the perception that the culture of Assam is threatened once again by the influx of foreigners and that the Central government is endeavouring to give legitimacy to a large number of them by making a distinction between illegal immigrants who are Muslim and those who are not. The agitation started in March 1979 and was led by the All Assam Students Union.
The fact that a large number of people had infiltrated into Assam was widely known. SL Shakdher, Chief Election Commissioner, had stated in October, 1978, ““I would like to refer to the alarming situation in some States, especially in the northeastern region, where from reports are coming regularly regarding large scale inclusion of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls.” There was widespread agitation, much bloodshed, including the murder of a high ranking civil servant,ES Parthasarathy, in a bomb attack.
In the first phase of agitation, the RSS is reported to have played a significant role. This is chronicled in ““The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North East” by Rajat Sethi and Shubhrasta with a foreword by Ram Madhav. It says, “RSS first transformed the agitation from anti-bahirgat(outsider) to anti-videshi( foreigner) movement. In gradual course of time, the sentiments were further directed against the immigrant Bangladeshis and later against the Bangladeshi Muslims.” In another book, “Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement”, by Mannan, a professor in Guwahati University, he says, ““A well known[ former] BJP state president revealed in his private conversation that during the Assam agitation, Narendra Modi used to move about as a pillion rider behind him on his scooter in many places in Guwahati.”( “How two Police Officers and RSS changed the script of the Assam Agitation against the Outsiders in 1980s” by Ajaz Ashraf, Scroll.in, January 18, 2018)
Today, the issue, which is obviously quite familiar to the ruling party has spun out of control not only in Assam, but in all parts of the country, particularly in urban areas. The attempt to isolate Muslims in the category of illegal migrants has boomeranged. Riots, agitations, hartals, violence have rocked the country. This is not an agitation spearheaded by the Muslims. It is a spontaneous outburst in which all communities are expressing their ire. There seems to be no indication that it is masterminded or led by any political party. Political leaders of other parties appear to be following the agitators rather than the other way round. The young, in particular, are outraged.
The government’s defence that this is intended only for foreigners and only to help those who face religious persecution in neighbouring Muslim countries has thus far carried no conviction. Many questions arise. The migrants targeted by the Act have been living in India for years, many for decades. Some have been born in India. They are largely impoverished and will have no documents to show. There may be a concentration of migrants in the North East, but they are to be found in other parts of India too. Does the government want to follow two different procedures to identify citizens, one for Muslims, another for others? Will Muslims be subjected to stricter procedures for registration than the others? How will government distinguish between ““Indian Muslims” and ““foreigner Muslims” in, say, Malappuram or Moradabad? How do they propose to deal with the renewed Assam agitation, where the Assamese now find that a large number of non-Muslim migrants will be given legitimacy in violation of the Assam Accord of 1985, which had specified 1971 as the cutoff year? Too many questions remain unanswered.
This is the moment for the government to rise above politics and show statesmanship. And to learn lessons from our history.