No teacher teaches but learns so much more in the process. My students had been tasked to write essays on the broad subject of India's nationhood. There was not a single essay from which I did not learn something. One of them, on tribal India, contained a memorable quote from a speech given in the Constituent Assembly on December 19, 1946 by the Munda leader, Jaipal Singh. "I rise," he said,"to speak on behalf of... the original people of India... As a jungli... The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of Independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected..."
What I was moved most by in that deeply affecting quotation was the faith, the simple honest trust, reposed by the tribal leader in one man's word - Jawaharlal Nehru's word: "I take Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at his word." And then, broadening his faith, "I take you all at your word..." The essay made me reflect on 'the word' today, the value, traction, worth of a word that is given by the authority of the State.
The Ayodhya Canto in Tulsidas's Ramacharitamanas has the line spoken by Dasarath: "Raghukula riti sada chali ayi, prana jahu baru bachanu na jayi." Translated by A.G. Atkins it means: "'Tis a known rule in Raghu's line, one naught can shake - Life may go, but his word a man may never break."
Three instances of 'the word' given by the Indian State, post-Independence, came to mind. In two of these the word was kept and one in which it was not.
In the first instance, the word was almost betrayed. It occurred in 1948 when the question arose of the division of the cash balance between India and Pakistan. India was required to and bound itself to pay a sum of Rs 75 crore to Pakistan as its proportionate cash asset. India had paid Rs 20 crore in the first installment and was set to pay the second instalment of Rs 55 crore when Pakistan invaded Kashmir. Nehru and Patel favoured holding the amount back. Would Pakistan not use the money to purchase arms to use against India? The governor general, Mountbatten, and Gandhi, both prevailed on the government to make good the payment. Imprudent idealism? Inviting the smirk of the cynic and the snarl of the jingoist, one should say honour won. The honour of the plighted word. And India has a huge moral advantage logged there, in its book of accounts with Pakistan.
The second major word of honour was given by the prime minister, Nehru, on the floor of the Lok Sabha on August 7, 1959. This was on the subject of India's official language. The south, Tamil Nadu in particular, had been disturbed at what seemed to it like Hindi imperialism. Nehru said: "...for an indefinite period - I do not know how long - I should have, I would have, English as an associate, additional language... as an alternative language as long as people require it and the decision for that I would leave not to the Hindi-knowing people, but to the non-Hindi-knowing people." This was the polar opposite of majoritarianism and Madras was assuaged. A year after Nehru's death, in 1965, suspicions of Hindi imposition rose again and riots broke out in Madras. The prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, reiterated the assurance. English, he said, would continue as the second official language as long as non-Hindi-speaking people wanted it. This Nehru-Shastri word of honour is cited every time there is apprehension in Tamil Nadu over the intentions of Hindi enthusiasts. And Delhi is obliged to say there is no change in the assurance given. The Nehru-Shastri word has not only thereby served to keep Tamil Nadu reassured but has in fact blunted the resistance of the people of the state towards Hindi as a language per se.
The third major instance of the word and its honour arose over the princely states of India which covered 48 per cent of the area of undivided India and nearly 30 per cent of its population. Defending the privy purse, the author of the integration of the states, Vallabhbhai Patel, said in the Constituent Assembly: "Let us do justice to them... The rulers have now discharged their part of the obligations by transferring all ruling powers... The main part of our obligation under these agreements is to ensure that the guarantee given by us in respect of privy purses are fully implemented. Our failure to do so would be a breach of faith and seriously prejudice the stabilisation of the new order." Whatever the socialist in Nehru may have felt about the princely order, the man of honour in him did not cavil at the purses. But the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, clearly displeased by the princes' rallying round the Swatantra Party, abolished the privy purses in 1970. The total amount payable to the princes at the time was only four crore rupees a year. Patel's word of honour was relinquished at the altar of political hubris in the garb of democratic equity.
The State's 'word' keeps being given.
Addressing a gathering of Christian leaders at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi, in February 2015, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, extolled the 2008 inter-faith 'Hague Declaration' on human rights and announced: "[S]peaking for India, and for my government, I declare that my government stands by every word of the above declaration. My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence. My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions."
A 'tweet' is hardly the vehicle for a word of honour but if the prime minister tweets a word of honour, the word becomes more important than its vehicle. On World Press Freedom Day, last May, Modi tweeted, "Our unwavering support towards a free and vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy."
Both these - guaranteeing freedom of faith and freedom of speech - are our prime minister's words of honour. They are words of honour in the highest Jaipal Singh sense of the term. Our prime minister knows more than anyone else that many things have happened, deeply troubling and shameful, that have belied his words of honour. Is it too late, even futile, to say, like the Munda leader did to Nehru, "...and yet I take Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his word"? His word of honour needs to be recognized for what it is. That, in his own words, is 'vital in a democracy'.
If not in the Jaipal Singh-Nehru sense of honour, for Nehru is outside his mind's chemistry, then in Sardar Patel's sense of honour, can our prime minister be mindful of the moral vacuity of a 'breach of faith'? And can he reflect on Tulsidas's lines: "... prana jahu baru bachanu na jayi"?
The author teaches at Ashoka University