From Swaraj to Surajya: How Modi's I-Day speech assaulted democracy

Angshukanta Chakraborty
Angshukanta ChakrabortyAug 15, 2016 | 21:33

From Swaraj to Surajya: How Modi's I-Day speech assaulted democracy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a soft corner for catchphrases. This Independence Day, the 70th for India (and possibly, the "third" for the Sangh Parivar), PM Modi, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, came up with a seemingly innocuous one: "From Swaraj to Surajya".  

According to the prime minister, Swaraj - or "self-rule", inherited from the stuffy freedom struggle, in which MK Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Subhas Bose, Bhagat Singh and others, played pivotal roles, must now be reformed and transformed into Surajya, which translates to "good rule". The "good" in this formulation, as per the PM, is being sensitive to the common people, the weaker sections.


He said: "Surajya is a qualitative and positive change in the lives of the citizens of India. It is to make administration sensitive, accountable and dedicated to the common man."

The altruistic thrust in this August 15 declaration of goodness is unmissable.

The only problem is, minus the self-rule, the democratic republic vanishes into thin air. Self-rule, or Swaraj, is the bedrock of a republic - rule of the people. Self-rule is the premise and guarantee of the universal adult franchise, the backbone of democracy. Self-rule is what turns us from disparate people into citizens of a country, with political rights, commitments, questions and demands. Self-rule is why we vote and elect governments. Self-rule is how we remove them for non-performance, or for discrediting the pluralist fabric of the nation.

No, Mr Modi: a metaphorical leap from "self-" to "good" isn't good for India: it is, in fact, suicidal.

The (intended) journey from Swaraj to Surajya may be couched in an apolitical language of "Reform, Perform, Transform", but in reality it is the relay race from an India of multiple faiths, cultures, languages and sexualities to the quasi-fascist uniformism of "Ek Bharat, Sresth Bharat". That is, in fact, what the Sangh Parivar desires and has made known in no uncertain terms.


PM Modi's role seems to be to wrap the complete Sanghification of India in the glittery paper of technocracy, aided by an army of Twitter handles and Facebook pages, and online portals that exchange the ease of consuming goods and services with the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, particularly from the marginalised sections.

Instead of being complementary, they are seen in opposition.

PM Narendra Modi delivers 70th Independence Day speech from Red Fort in the national capital.

Hence, in his 100-minute speech, his longest Independence Day speech by far, as he recapitulated his government's "achievements" - from easier availability of passports to online answers to many a doggedly depressing issue, Modi's reference to social justice was cursory and perfunctory, not part of his grand vision, but a minor adjustment only.

Instead, he laid out his idea of Surajya - another version of Good Governance - in which online availability of services, the pop economics of digitalised India and a jumble of feel-good numbers replaced Swaraj, with its postcolonial baggage, with its traumatic history of remembering the pity of Partition.

But Swaraj as history is intricately fused with Swaraj as everyday politics, especially in a country that has seen a rash of undemocratic diktats making lived lives miserable, and ending many of them, imposing fatwas on eating, loving, speaking and ideating.


While Surajya is about inaugurating a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar, it is Swaraj that enables the Dalit from Una to agitate for his right to livelihood and throw dead cow carcasses at government buildings in Gujarat. While Surajya is issuing "cow protection IDs" to a bunch of officially-stamped good gau rakshaks, it is Swaraj that emboldens the Muslim to question the putative beef ban, the dietary stalemate churning India's noxious belly, after s/he sees a sample of meat being sent for forensic testing while man's corpse lay outside his house, a man beaten to death by a lynchmob of rumourmongers.

Swaraj also allows one to connect the dots and find parallel and intersecting oppressions, form politically potent combines of spontaneous agitations and turn the turbines of organised movements. Movements questioning, delegitimising the so-called Surajya that wants Swaraj to take a backseat.

Of course, Swaraj is connected to Azadi, the word that has been the centre-piece of Indian political theatre of late. From criminalising free speech heard in the premises of Jawaharlal Nehru University and University of Hyderabad, to thought-policing academics, thinkers, writers, journalists and students who do not conform to a narrow definition of nationalism - often a "coffin for the mind wrapped in the Tricolour", Azadi has seen students being jailed on charges of sedition, or being pitted against dying soldiers in Siachen and Kargil, or the paramilitary/police personnel killed by Maoists in "conflict zones" such as Chhattisgarh.  

Swaraj, as it turns out, is the reservoir of renewable, inextinguishable freedoms, hard-won and integral to a living, breathing, functioning democratic republic. By nature, Swaraj is chaotic because it allows plurality to thrive, because it guarantees individual self-expression, and a right to choose. Swaraj is what links the richest with the poorest, the Hindu with the Muslim, the man with the woman, the religious with the irreligious, the gender-grinder with the gender bender and gives them the same ideal political platform, the same unit of participation in a multifarious system wherein the ruler is the ruled and vice-versa.

Swaraj, Azadi, freedom, independence, liberty, etc are words that are not merely connected synonymously, but with the evolution of the human polity towards inclusive, participatory, respectful rule of all.

Surajya, on the other hand, is the petrifaction of all the above, and the ideal idea in the Sanghi utopia of maximum governance. Surajya is the trope under which the emphasis on the "good" will obliterate the many construed as bad. As being observed in India, "good rule" is subject to interpretation, but is usually a bunch of majoritarian technocratic hogwash.    

Surajya is the ossification of Azadi, though it shouldn't be.

Can we leave out Swaraj for the sake of Surajya? Is this the transformation India needs?

Modi's blue-print of Surajya is the Sangh's wet dream. It is the marrying of the imagined "civilisational Hinduness" of India with the technology to realise that - whether digital or militaristic. That is why Modi, along with parroting an assortment of questionable governmental achievements - all intimately connected to the digital arsenal, also sounded the self-important and self-righteous notes on Gilgit-Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, without bothering to mention the over-a-month-long curfew in (Indian) Kashmir, with its dead and the blinded.

Moreover, the discounting of Swaraj and the move towards a macho Surajya was also advocated recently by a retired and much decorated army officer, who has excelled at the game of recommending amnesiac militarism as the one-size-fit-all solution for all of our problems. Not only did he dismiss the decades of non-violent freedom struggle steered on by Gandhi and politically negotiated by Nehru at the round tables with the British as inconsequential, he even said that the real freedom was gained when Narendra Modi became the prime minister of India in 2014.

It was there that the ominous line was sounded: "Our generation split Pakistan into two. Yours should split it into four."

That PM Modi makes an official position on not only Balochistan, but also Pakistan-occupied Kashmir just days after the retired generalissimo made his proclivities known can at best be too perfect a coincidence, and at worst, a chalking out of a new national direction: confrontational foreign policy as the carrot to dangle before a sticky domestic situation.

But more importantly, it is about the organised writing-off of the prologue to India - the nation-state, altering the story of its difficult birth and engineering mass forgetfulness to energise and inform its Surajya. This is the Surajya where history will be read according to the whims and fancies of the Sangh Parivar, which has taken to rehabilitating RSS proponents such as Veer Savarkar, MS Golwalkar and Madan Mohan Malviya - all of whom wanted a Hindu India.  

Sabre-rattling - online and offline - is the new national pastime, and it keeps the entire rank and file of the Sanghi heaven - from the troll to the topmost elected leader of the country - occupied. Jingoism and vigilantism, however, form the baseline of Surajya - a deeply casteist, Hindutva-wielding idea of the nation-state.

Replacing Swaraj with Surajya will be the relinquishing of the very thing India has held dear - its staggering, constitutionally-guaranteed bounty of beautiful differences.

Last updated: August 16, 2016 | 15:44
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