Just two days before Biden arrives on Indian soil for the G20 summit, Indian newspapers and TV channels began running with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s new commitment to inclusivity and empathy for marginalized communities. The timing of his emotionally charged statement could not have been missed. He said that reservations should continue as long as there is no discrimination in society – views he had espoused eight years ago when he called for a review of the system.
A nagging question must have arisen in the minds of the G20 delegates: Is this the same organization that has faced repeated sanctions by the Indian government? Has this organization not been under constant scrutiny of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since the assassination of MK Gandhi in 1948? The RSS is also said to have been involved in the 2002 Gujarat riots, due to its failure to stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visa being rejected by the US, as he was the CM in the state at that time. As the Modi government has been avoiding questions on threats to communal harmony in India, Biden saw an important moment to speak on the issue during his visit to Vietnam on September 10. The impact of his words spread far beyond Vietnamese shores and echoed throughout the world. “As I always do, I raised with Modi the importance of respect for human rights and the vital role of civil society and the free press in building a strong and prosperous country,” he said.
This raises a fundamental, dramatic and emotionally charged question: Was Bhagwat’s support for reservations a heartfelt concern for the welfare of Dalits or was it a carefully staged performance to impress G20 leaders? If this were genuine, one would have expected the RSS chief to bring his organization’s constitution in line with the Constitution of India that very day. The well-planned spectacle of the Modi government hiding slums to welcome G20 dignitaries raises deep questions about the complex nature of this unfolding drama.
RSS is not the first
It is not just the RSS – across the world, leaders of various ideologies have sometimes challenged the sanctity of affirmative action, sometimes subjecting these important principles to scrutiny. Marion Anne Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Victor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe have made their mark. It has sometimes tried to get its way, either by using populism or by stoking divisive sentiments. However, a resounding and undeniable lesson echoes through this diverse narrative: in democratic societies, the Constitution acts as a lifeline, and at its core lies the principle of equal opportunity for all.
Tampering with the fundamental principles of democracy, especially affirmative action, has historically had disastrous consequences. In Bolivia, mass protests echoed across the country as Evo Morales attempted to consolidate his rule in 2020. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro’s demands to rewrite the constitution in 2017 turned the streets into a poignant forum of dissent. Thousands of miles away in 2013, when Mohammed Morsi seized power, Egypt’s stormy intersections were filled with passionate protesters. Zimbabwe under Mugabe, who was notorious for repeatedly initiating constitutional adjustments, ultimately succumbed to pressure from a frustrated population and an opportunistic military. Turkey and Poland, once celebrated for their democratic progress, are now in a precarious position, facing accusations of democratic erosion due to Erdoğan’s consolidation of power and Poland’s judicial reforms.
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Sri Lanka’s 2022 constitutional crisis, Kyrgyzstan’s ouster of Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010, and Ukraine’s fierce public resistance to Russian forces over the past decade are reminders that a nation’s founding document represents more than just ink on paper. It does – and the symbol of its essence is democracy.
These narratives highlight the ominous dangers that arise when the lines in the sand, the principles that unify a society, are redrawn or erased. They highlight the undeniable fact that the sanctity of the Constitution, including provisions like affirmative action, is not a vague concept but the foundation on which democratic societies stand firmly. To intervene without any genuine consent or legitimate reason is to invite anarchy and jeopardize the core pillars of justice, equality and representation.
Where the top courts stepped in
While elected representatives fell short in protecting affirmative action, the Supreme Courts boldly stepped forward to preserve the sanctity of our Constitution. Supreme courts around the world have played an important role in preserving reservations and affirmative action in democratic governments.
In a landmark moment in 1978, the case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke marked a victory for affirmative action. Through an impassioned challenge mounted by Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled that racial quotas should not serve as limits to aspirations. Instead, it declared that our pursuit of diversity and equality should shape our ambitions.
In a heartfelt decision in 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of R v Cupp, enthusiastically supported the rights of marginalized communities. In the face of historical injustices, the Court upheld a program that favored indigenous fishermen, reaffirming the country’s commitment to equality.
In the decisive decisions of the ADPF 186 and NDI 2131 cases, the Brazilian Supreme Court strengthened the global foundation of equality. By upholding racial quotas in university admissions, the Court not only addressed Brazil’s deeply entrenched historical racial inequalities, but also set a powerful international precedent. It underlined the indispensable role of affirmative action in the pursuit of equality and justice.
These cases highlight the fact that the principles of equality and justice, supported by provisions such as affirmative action, are not mere ideals but guiding stars leading nations towards a fairer and more inclusive future.
Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that in a democracy there is no time limit for affirmative action or reservation. A democratic nation, by its very essence, is committed to the principles of equality, justice and inclusivity. These principles cannot be compromised, nor do they have any expiration date. They are the heartbeat of any true democracy.
The participation of organizations like the RSS, which have a dual religious and political nature, in discussions related to constitutional matters raises legitimate concerns about their commitment to democratic principles. In a democratic society, every person and organization has the right to express his views. However, it is imperative to maintain a clear demarcation between religious or ideological institutions and elected bodies entrusted with the responsibility of drafting and amending constitutional provisions. This demarcation is not just a procedural formality; It is the foundation of democratic governance, ensuring that decisions are taken in the best interests of all citizens, free from undue influence of external agendas. It acts as a safeguard to protect the democratic values that underpin a just and equitable society.
(The author is president of the Foundation for Human Horizon, a UN-affiliated NGO that is leading the anti-caste law movement in the United States, and an Artificial Intelligence (AI) research scholar at Johns Hopkins University. Views expressed are personal Are.)
(Editing: Rishabh Raj)
(Click here to read this article in English.)
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