Monday, January 26, 2015

How Rajendra Prasad (and not Rajaji) became our Republic’s First President

The selection of India’s first president was preceded by a fierce political contest between Nehru and Patel

(First published on Scroll)

26 January 1950 heralded in many changes for India, as its newly minted constitution was pressed into service.  One of those changes was that the country ceased to be a constitutional monarchy, with the British King as head of state, and became a republic. This meant that the representative of the British Crown, the governor-general would have to give way to a president. On 26 January 1950, therefore, the last governor-general of India, C Rajagopalachari swore in Rajendra Prasad as President of the Republic of India.

This passing of the baton, while smooth in outward appearance, was actually preceded by a fierce political tug of war, as Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Mister Vallabhbhai Patel jostled for influence within the Government.

Two candidates: Rajaji and Prasad

By mid-1949, the constitution-making process was drawing to a close and the need to choose a president, to act as head of the new republican state, was looming. For this post, Nehru preferred Rajagopalachari, a scholar-politician from Madras. Rajaji, as he was fondly called, was already governor-general at the time and appointing him president would involve nothing more than a change of title.

Patel, though, had other ideas, and supported Bihar Congressman, Rajendra Prasad instead. To some extent, this split was driven by ideology. Rajaji and Nehru agreed with each other on the type of secularism India should follow, an idea Patel didn’t quite buy into: the Sardar would once call Rajaji “half a Muslim” and Nehru, “the Congress’ only nationalist Muslim” (the latter was also a backhanded dig at Abul Kalam Azad). Rajaji had also, back in the day, opposed and eventually dissociated himself from the Quit India Movement, a fact that rankled with many Congressmen.

Patel’s choice, Rajendra Prasad, was like him a social conservative. As president, Prasad would bitterly oppose Nehru’s Hindu Code Bills which gave women greater rights. He would also help rebuild the Somnath Temple, after the Sardar’s death. His most interesting clash with Nehru though was over the very date of Republic Day: Prasad wanted it moved because he thought the day to be astrologically inauspicious.

Mostly, however, this clash was nothing but your garden-variety political turf war and was driven by Patel’s desire to put a check on Nehru's power. A year later, Patel would even manage to push his own candidate as Congress President, tartly remarking that, "At the time of Rajen babu's election he [Nehru] got a slap in the face. This is the second."

Patel outmanoeuvres Nehru

Decision made, Patel privately communicated his support to Prasad. He did not, however, publicly reveal his hand yet, preferring to bide his time.

Rash and impetuous, with characteristic disdain for the nitty-gritties, Nehru preferred to take a more direct and ultimately imprudent approach. With murmurs swirling around in the Congress of Prasad’s candidature, on 10 September 1949, Nehru wrote directly to him expressing his opinion that “Rajaji might continue as president” and Prasad was not welcome since “it would involve a change and consequent rearrangements”.

Privately supported by Patel, Prasad wrote back, belligerent, refusing to bow out of the race. Publicly, however, Patel kept his cards close to his chest. In his communication with Nehru, Patel gave the impression that he didn’t have a dog in this fight, telling him that is was for Nehru to “deal with the situation now”, giving off the impression that he would back him. Blithely unaware of what was going on behind the scenes, Nehru kept on writing to Patel complaining about "vigorous canvassing [that] has taken place on this subject and there is a large majority who favour Rajendra Babu".

On 5 October, Nehru called in a meeting of Congress MPs to decide the matter. As he proposed Rajaji’s name for president, his words were loudly interrupted by the MPs present. Given Nehru’s stature and his standing, this was quite astonishing. Disoriented by the intensity of opposition, Nehru turned to Patel for support and, of course, at that crucial moment, the Sardar played his hand: he didn’t back-up Nehru. Stunned by this turn of events, Nehru stopped his speech and sat down as MP after MP attacked Rajaji’s candidature. The meeting had all but wrecked Rajaji’s chances of becoming president. It had also deeply embarrassed Nehru—in public. So much so that Nehru threatened to resign, the first of many such threats (a tactic our current Prime Minster also seems to be warming to).

History repeats itself

Interestingly, an almost identical situation was played out more than 50 years later at the BJP’s Goa conclave of 2002. At Vajpayee’s behest, Narendra Modi was to resign as Chief Minister of Gujarat in the aftermath of the 2002 Pogrom. Till the conclave started, Vajpayee was led on to believe that he had Advani’s backing on the matter. In the background, however, Advani had organised a coup. Dramatically, during the conclave itself, key BJP members vociferously refused to force Modi to resign as a shocked and isolated Vajpayee looked on. That parallels are often drawn between Nehru and Vajpayee on the one hand and Patel and Advani on the other, make this anecdote all the more delicious: a rather exacting case of history repeating itself.

Back to 1949: seeing that he had been outmanoeuvred quite thoroughly, a desperate Nehru exchanged the stick for the carrot. He tempted Prasad first with the chairmanship of the Planning Commission and then the presidentship of the Congress; but Prasad didn’t bite.

Defeated, Rajaji announced his retirement. Later on he would be inducted into the Cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio and, after Patel’s death, he would go on to become the Home Minster.

After swearing in Prasad as president, Rajaji wrote him a congratulatory letter wishing him "strength and support". While Rajaji must obviously have been smarting at these turn of events which forced him to become a martyred pawn in a Nehru-Patel battle, he was obviously above complaining directly about it. In his typical wry humour though, he ended the letter to Prasad with a postscript: "Please show this to Jawaharlal and Vallabhbhai. I am not writing separately to them".

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How India curbed its Freedom of Speech and Expression

First published on Scroll/Quartz

Within only a year of the Constitution coming into force, Parliament passed the First Amendment which placed “reasonable restrictions” on free speech

The horrific attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo seems to have pitched India into a free speech maelstrom with some awkward, even depressing results. The day after the murders took place, HT Media’s business newspaper, Mint, decided to publish some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as a defiant protest in favour of freedom of expression. Embarrassingly, only a few days later however, it put out a notice saying that it had “removed” the cartoons. The reason for this, Mint claimed, was that the cartoons had “offended some people”.   More odiously, the state moved in as well: Mumbai’s police blocked purportedly offensive social media posts related to Charlie Hebdo.

Neither incident came as a surprise, of course: India has a glorious tradition of restricting free speech. In fact, so vital is this quality to the nation’s lifeblood that the very first amendment made to India’s newly minted constitution sought to restrict freedom of speech. In an ironic coincidence, the First Amendment to the US’ constitution prohibits any abridgment of free speech. Maybe a lot can be said about a country from only its first amendment.

Indians get freedom of speech and expression

On 26 January, 1950, our founding fathers awarded India a fine constitution which, amongst other things, guaranteed its citizens “the right to freedom of speech and expression”. Almost immediately though, they were to regret this overgenerosity, as the judiciary started to limit executive action on the basis of freedom of expression. 

In Bihar, a government order to restrict a violent political pamphlet was quashed by the Patna High Court. So liberal was India’s freedom of speech at the time that a judge on the case held that “if a person were to go on inciting murder or other cognizable offences either through the press or by word of mouth, he would be free to do so with impunity because he could claim freedom of speech and expression”. This is remarkably similar to the US Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling in the Brandenburg case which held that the State cannot forbid advocacy of the use of force or of law violation unless the violence was intended, likely and imminent.

In Delhi, the government’s attempts at pre-censoring the RSS’ mouthpiece, the Organizer met the same fate. The East Punjab Public Safety Act, 1950, under which the curbs were being applied, was held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The third case (May, 1950) turned out to be the most impactful and involved a left-leaning journal called Crossroads, published by Romesh Thapar from Mumbai. At the time, Madras state had banned the Communist Party and, as part of that policy, prohibited the entry and circulation of Crossroads in the state. Thapar contested this ban legally and won, with the Supreme Court declaring the Madras Maintenance of Public Safety Act, 1949 unconstitutional.

The Communist Party ha, at the time, declared war on the new dominion with the slogan “Yeh azadi jhooti hai” (this freedom is fake) and in Telangana was directly battling the Indian army. Thapar, while not a card-carrying member of the party, was widely seen to be a communist sympathiser and, therefore this decision by the Supreme Court greatly alarmed the administration.

The First Amendment is put in place

Within a week of the decision, Home Minster Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to Nehru, complaining that this ruling “knocks the bottom out of most of our penal laws for the control and regulation of the press”. Patel also expressed concern that this meant that the government would be unable to gag Hindu Mahasabha leader, SP Mookerjee, who was leading a troublesome campaign to get Bengal’s partition annulled (ironic, because just 3 years back, he was one its biggest supporters).

Nehru and Patel did not often see eye to eye but on this matter there was perfect agreement within the duumvirate: both leaders believed in a strong, centralised state.  In fact, not only Nehru and Patel, there was broad agreement on this matter throughout the government. Ambedkar, while less hawkish that either Nehru or Patel on the matter, still agreed on the need for curbs.

Events moved fast. By February, 1951, Nehru had constituted the Cabinet Committee on Amendment to modify Article 19 (which contained within in it, the freedom of speech). Law Minister, Ambedkar opined that the phrase “reasonable restrictions” be added. Patel’s Home Ministry, unsatisfied by the qualifier “reasonable” sought to have it removed. This qualifier left it up to the judiciary to decide what “reasonable” meant, curtailing the powers of the government.

Nehru came down on the side of the Home Ministry and the draft bill introduced in Parliament allowed the State to make laws which imposed “restrictions” on freedom of speech and expression “in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence".

The opposition to this bill was fierce, spearheaded by SP Mookerjee. Restrictions on free speech in the interests of “friendly relations with foreign States” directly gagged his efforts to overturn partition and he was naturally indignant. “The Prime minister believes that agitation to end partition is harmful to the country, but I think partition should be annulled. So why can we not each give our views and let the public decide,” argued Mookerjee in a forceful response to the bill.

In the face of this fierce opposition, the government backed down a bit. Nehru reintroduced the qualifier “reasonable”. This compromise in place, Parliament passed the bill 228 to 20.

Later on, in 1963, the Sixteenth Amendment would add another condition to the above seven: “the sovereignty and integrity of India” aimed at curbing Tamil separatism. Till then Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had the secession of South India as part of its agenda, which it then subsequently dropped.

A (limited) freedom of expression

The can of worms this opened meant that modern India has lived with vaguely defined hate speech laws (Section 153A) and a blasphemy law (Section 295A). Faced with the diffused nature of the Internet, the government passed Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000 which even went so far as to penalise “offensive” electronic messages.

Backers of a limited right to expression usually argue that unrestricted free speech would cause law and order issues in India, much as the government did in 1951. The fact that India is a volatile country is not in doubt. Just 6 months back, a young Muslim man in Pune was murdered by a mob, incensed by derogatory images of Shivaji and Bal Thackeray (unlike in Paris, the murderers did not even bother to find out the source of the image).  

Like a number of other statist solution, however, curbs on free speech in the service of public order looks far better on paper than on the ground. As we’ve seen in Mumbai in 1993 or even in Gujarat in 2002, the state does not really seek to clamp down on free speech for such altruistic purposes. Instead, free speech curbs are used for petty political ends, banning books, movies, paintings and even Facebook status updates.

In spite of the widespread and frequent curbs on free speech, this is really not a political issue in India and there exists remarkable political consensus on their continuation. So deep is the rot that in most cases—from Penguin to Mint—people now simply censor themselves, which really is the best curb on freedom of expression anyone could wish for. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Interview with Pujari Laldas, priest of the Ram Janmbhoomi Temple

This is a small excerpt from the interviews with Pujari Laldas, the priest of the Ram Janmbhoomi mandir which existed inside the Babri Masjid before it was demolished in 1992.

I never knew about this man and it came as eye-opener to me when I recently watched Anand Patwardhan's documentary on the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid. Laldas was murdered a few months after the demolition in some rather murky circumstances. He had not changed his views till the time of his assassination.

You can watch Ram ke Naam here [link]. It is invaluable historical resource which tells the story of probably the most important event of India's modern history. It is also, by the way, a really well made film. But of course, Patwardhan hardly needs me to back him up.

It's there on YouTube because there seems to be a de facto ban on screenings: an odd, one-off anachronism in these times of radical freedom of expression, it seems.