Unity, Harmony and the Republic

This year's Republic Day parade in New Delhi excluded the tableau representing West Bengal and its culture. Garga Chatterjee explains the implications

Unity, Harmony and the Republic
If you are from West Bengal and were waiting eagerly for your state’s tableau in the Republic Day parade at New Delhi this year, you would have been sorely disappointed. There was no West Bengal tableau this year. And this is not because the West Bengal government refused to be represented but because the Powers That Be did not want West Bengal’s tableau in that parade. There was indeed a West Bengal tableau themed ‘Ekotai Sompriti’ (Unity is Harmony) but that took part in the West Bengal government’s own Republic Day parade in Kolkata. The West Bengal government had proposed the same theme for its tableau in the Delhi parade. But it was not given clearance by Delhi. Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, explained it as follows: “This year Delhi did not allow our tableau. We planned to bring […] street artistes, Bauls, Sufi singers and Fakirs on the same platform for this year’s Republic Day tableau. But they (the Centre) could not accept that.” Here, of course, by ‘Delhi’ one means not the city but the Union government power structure.

“India, that is, Bharat, shall be a Union of States” is the opening line of the Constitution of India. Without the States themselves, there is no Union – no India, no Bharat. The day that marks the promulgation of the Constitution is the Republic Day of the Indian Union. It marks the transition from imperial subjects to rightful stakeholder citizens of a huge segment of the people of the British-controlled areas of South Asia that the colonial authorities cobbled together and called “India” – a novel administrative entity before their advent. While all State governments in their own capitals conduct Republic Day events, the parade held every year in New Delhi represents that participation of the States in the Union. And the State tableaux represent just that.

The Republic Day parade for 2018 in New Delhi was unique in a shameful way. Having debarred the West Bengal tableau from participation, it meant symbolically removing the state and its mostly Bengali people from being stakeholders in the celebration the Union of States. The symbolic exclusion of 8% of the Indian Union’s citizens is no small affair.

Mamata Bannerjee has spoken out against the exclusion of her state's tableau on Republic Day this year

West Bengal premier Mamata Banerjee’s statement underlines the gravity of what had just happened. She said, “This is an insult to Bengal and her people. The theme of our tableau was unity and we wanted to show that only harmony among people can ensure peace. Is that why our tableau was rejected? Only those who can accept all opinions and beliefs and move forward with the people become great leaders. To become great, one has to show a lot of tolerance, but right now, some people are busy causing divisions among Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Our tableaux on folk culture were awarded in 2014 and 2016 but in 2015, they rejected the tableau based on the Kanyashree project for girl children. The Centre did not give any recognition to Kanyashree but it was awarded by the United Nations.” She then put in words that which is evident to most: “This year our proposed theme was ‘Ekatai Sampriti’ (Unity is Harmony). I think this was why we have been left out.”

Exceptional moments like these give citizens of the Indian Union a look into the Republic Day parade organising process in Delhi, which otherwise might appear so very harmonious and smooth. West Bengal was overruled by a Union government ministry apparently based on whims. I say ‘whims’ because the Union government’s committee under the Ministry of Defence did not offer any written explanation about the reasons for rejecting West Bengal’s tableau. Mamata Banerjee described the chain of events as such, “We were called for the expert committee’s meeting in September and also for another meeting in October and our proposal was appreciated there. We had also accepted all their suggestions, but we were not called for the next meetings because our proposed theme was on unity.” One can surmise what the reasons might be, given the context of excluding a staunchly secular state like West Bengal, which has been facing regular discrimination in disbursement of funds from the Centre, including the shameful denial of flood relief for the fatally devastating floods of 2017. Neighbouring states like Bihar and Assam – even independent neighbouring country Nepal – received huge funds for relief during the same floods. At a moment when in many BJP-ruled states of the Indian Union, Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan ideological militias and vigilantes are wreaking havoc, the ‘Harmony is Unity’ theme West Bengal’s tableau would have upheld the secular republican constitutional values.

When unity and harmony are themes that are not acceptable to Delhi’s Powers That Be, we get a peek into the ideological framework of the faceless decision-makers sitting behind the anonymity of a ‘committee’. When a committee from the Union’s Ministry of Defence acts with such partiality and partisanship, then a very fundamental compact between the Union and a State is broken. This goes against all tenets of federal republicanism, which is precisely what is supposed to be celebrated on Republic Day.

West Bengal's tableau at last year's Republic Day, 2017

Such unilateral aggressive actions of the Centre represent not only an assault on the federal structure of the Indian Union but also on representative democracy itself. The Union government is not in charge of the “country” because there is no such constitutional entity. Country (desh) and Rashtra (state) are not the same thing. The Union government is not superior to the State governments. They don’t share a parent-child relationship. A state government is sovereign and not answerable to the Centre with reference to any subject in the State list. In fact, they do different things, with separate powers that are mutually sovereign – more like siblings with different responsibilities. Mutual non-encroachment is the guarantee of the preservation of the federal structure and a part of the unchangeable basic structure of the constitution.

It is laughable that the Centre continues to deny any role in the rejection of West Bengal’s tableau. Union minister from BJP Arjun Ram Meghwal stated, “There is a committee which selects the tableaux. There is absolutely no role by the central government on the issue.” When a government minister hides behind the sorry fig-leaf of a government committee saying “they decide and we don’t”, he insults the intelligence of citizens.

What if Delhi had allowed the West Bengal tableau? Some despicable things would not have changed. The tableau would have read ‘Paschim Bangaal’ in front, written in Devanagari. What is this ‘Paschim Bangaal’? I am assuming it has something to do with the western half of Bengal after its second partition in 1947. ‘Paschim Bangaal’ is not an official name of the State and it is not what a stupendous majority of the people of West Bengal call it. But it is what Hindi people call it. Why does that have priority? Can a linguistic state like West Bengal not even choose what it calls itself and what language to display in front of its tableau? Are non-Hindi state tableaux simply custom-made circuses for the entertainment of Hindi speakers? Isn’t it sad that the Tamil Nadu tableau front name cannot be read by most Tamils but by all Hindi people? To be made intelligible to Hindi people, Delhi seems to use caricatures of our non-Hindi state names with impunity and then make the caricature names unintelligible to the actual non-Hindi people themselves by making Devanagari compulsory in front. Can this be considered equality, federalism or republicanism?

Delhi hopes that this sort of imposition will be normalised. Such is the insidious nature of the centralising ideology that is now quite openly defining the first-class citizens of the Indian Union through 3 signifiers: Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. The ideological opposite of Hindustan may be Pakistan, but that is Hindustan’s problem, not a problem of the non-Hindustan states of the Indian Union. The linguistic-ideological opposite of Hindi may be Urdu, but neither Hindi nor Urdu is an ideological opposite of Bangla or Kannada or Tamil – unless Hindi or Urdu are made compulsory or imposed.

When Bengalis pronounce other people’s names in their way, it is termed ignorance. When they stick to pronouncing names in their own ways, after being reminded of the correct way, it is termed obstinacy and parochialism. When the Hindi-Hindu mandarins do the same through their “Paschim Bangaal”, it is given the aura of a standard– to be emulated and propagated through Union government edicts and subsidy. Different peoples have their own ways of making sense of others, except the hegemon which has given itself the unilateral right to not only caricature others but also make sure that such caricatures enjoy the status of ‘official’ and ‘approved’ portrayals. This ideology runs deep. The Tamils or the Bengalees can be caricatured for their dress and pronunciation, but there is no fiddling with the Hindu-Hindi. The ‘core’ is never caricatured. That is ‘anti-national’. Or rather, that which is not caricatured is a hint as to what is the core. This ‘core’ sits in the Red Fort, it sits in the differential font size between Hindi and non-Hindi scripts of currency notes, it sits in CBSE school syllabi, it sits in only Hindi-English but no Bangla or Tamil interface of Union government websites and forms and it sits inside the heads of the subjects who were supposed to be citizens.

Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at hajarduari.wordpress.com