Amid the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, there’s a glimmer of hope. Strangers are responding to SOS calls on social media for oxygen, medicines, hospital beds, and even cremation spots. While some politicians are seeking to further divide the country on religious lines, many faith communities have opened up their places of worship and other institutions as “COVID care centers” and are providing critical food and oxygen supplies indiscriminately. A sense of fraternity that transcends plurality is emerging among the citizens, just as the framers of India’s Constitution had desired.
Fraternity can be seen in Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and those without a religious faith working together for each other. This camaraderie is being driven by sheer necessity in the face of monumental government failure in preparing for a second wave of the coronavirus and points to a key principle of community living.
Fraternity is “a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians – if Indians are seen as being one people. It is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life,” said Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the chairperson of the Constitution of India Drafting Committee, in November 25, 1949 as he addressed the Constituent Assembly for the last time.
Article 51-A (e) of the constitution specifically states that “it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic, and regional or sectional diversities.” This is a robust, relational, and non-relativistic vision of pluralism also termed as covenantal pluralism by scholars.
Sadly, however, in recent years India’s founding ethos of pluralistic fraternity has been under attack. Communal conflicts and violence driven by divisive narratives have fractured religious communities. Take for example the 2020 mob violence against the Muslim minority in the capital city of Delhi; the growing culture of lynchings on trains and highways since 2014; and ongoing dissemination of incendiary rhetoric that calls for attacks on religious communities and institutions.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) took note of these disturbing trends in a report released this year, calling for the U.S. State Department to designate India as a “Country of Particular Concern.” “Religious freedom conditions in India are taking a drastic turn downward, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities,” USCIRF said.
The USCIRF echoed concerns about restrictive laws such as the state-level “anti-conversion” laws, which restrict religious conversions. USCIRF also rightly criticized India’s 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which called for expediting citizenship for foreigners from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan who have been religiously persecuted, but which excluded Muslims. The CAA, read in conjunction with a call to create a National Register of Citizenship (NRC), led to widespread fear that many Indian citizens would be left out due to poor documentation or might be targeted due to their faith.
Such incidents or trends should have been met with a strict legal action and public outcry. However, weak institutions – the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, and the media – have compounded the problem. In many incidents of religious identity-related violence, vigilante mobs have acted with almost complete impunity.
The victims of the communal and targeted violence have repeatedly accused the state machinery, especially the police, of failing to protect them. A fact-finding committee (of which this author was a part), set up by the Delhi Minority Commission to look at the 2020 anti-Muslim violence in Delhi, included testimonies of several victims on how mobs attacked their homes and business establishment while the police stood by.
Political expediency seems to be the primary reason why religion-based violence continues to occur, goes unpunished, and is even rewarded.
Studies by eminent researchers, such as Paul Brass, suggest that communal conflicts can be politically beneficial to certain political parties and that state governments allow them to continue depending on calculations concerning the loss or gain of votes. Brass also highlighted the role of “firetenders” – individuals seeking political gains from such divisions in society.
Political leaders in India have repeatedly used these fault-lines between Hindus and Muslims to stir up trouble. Recently, a video on social media showed a member of Parliament, Tejasvi Surya, berating staff of a “COVID control room” in Bengaluru city for hiring Muslims and turning it into a “madrasa.” His outburst resulted in 16 Muslim employees, who were providing critical support to COVID-19 patients, being suspended.
Thankfully, the subsequent public outcry against his behavior led to the Muslim employees being reinstated.
In this case, fraternity built due to the COVID-19 crisis helped keep a check on the attempt to fuel communal passions. But we must do more to actively call out the discrimination and violence on the basis of religious identity.
Far too often, however, we have stayed quiet when rights of fellow citizens who are Dalit, Tribals, women, and religious minorities have been eroded. We acted out of fear or indifference or worse, still believing that this violence or discrimination was deserved.
The pandemic has taught us that working together for the common good, setting aside differences, can literally save lives. So critical it is to our future that it is a fundamental duty of every citizen as per the Constitution of India.
Fraternity is the bedrock on which other essential ideals like liberty and equality flourish. Without it, Ambedkar reflected, “liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them.”
Fraternity compels us to speak up for those who are different. It flourishes when we allow ourselves to be affected by the vulnerability of the other, and recognize our ability to act to assist the other. It is a recognition of our interdependence for the common good. It is nurtured through acts of kindness and by creating space for each other. The Constitution of India, in Hindi language, uses the term bandhuta for fraternity. Bandhuta draws on the concept of being bound or knitted together in friendship and love. It is a powerful vision for a nation of citizens working together for the good of each other.
It is imperative that this sense of solidarity among citizens continues even after the pandemic dies down. The only reliable “vaccine” against exclusivist religious nationalism and violence is a recovery of India’s venerable ethos of pluralistic fraternity.