The ‘tractor parade’ led by the protesting farmers on the occasion of Republic Day symbolises how these historic national events can also be observed without directly adhering to the State-sponsored official celebrations and rituals. But this is not the first time the idea of protest has got entangled with the Republic Day events. Much before the farmers, the Babri Masjid Movement Coordination Committee had triggered a national debate in 1987 when it made a call to mount its protest on the symbolism of the day.
The farmers’ parade, to quote Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav, aims to celebrate the Gana (the people), and not the Tantra (government), so as to realise the true meaning of Ganatantra (the Republic).
This symbolic attempt to regain the alternative meanings of Ganatantra has a unique postcolonial story. The call given by the Babri Masjid Movement Coordination Committee (BMMCC) — a coalition of Muslim organisations to restore the status of Babri Masjid — has been one of the most curious episodes of this alternative story of Ganatantra. The BMMCC called upon “the Muslim community not to participate in or associate themselves with the observance of the Republic Day on 26 January 1987, except those individuals who are on official duty”. (Muslim India, Vol. 50)
An All India Conference on Babri Masjid was organised in Delhi on 21-22 December 1986.
This conference issued an overarching document — Delhi Declaration — that came out with a four-point radical agenda: (a) the non-observance of the Republic Day call; (b) an all-India Bandh on 1 February 1987; (c) a rally on 30 March 1987; and if all these fail, (d) a direct march to Ayodhya. (Muslim India, 50, p. 59-60)
There was an inherent confusion in this declaration. The idea of non-participation in this appeal was not very clear. It could have two possible meanings. First, the non-participation of Muslims could possibly be understood as a kind of ‘deliberate action’ to register their grievances. Second, the non-participation could also be perceived as an act of boycott or rejection. In this sense, it might be seen as an act to challenge the authority of the State.
Boycott as separatism
The mainstream media, particularly the English print media, further increased this confusion. In most of the Delhi-based newspapers, the original text of the Delhi Declaration or its broad overview were not published. Instead, the political programme, particularly the radical measures adopted by the BMMCC, was given adequate coverage. Interestingly, the non-participation call was described as the boycott of Republic Day.
The news of a ‘boycott call’ provoked all the major political forces in India. The call was criticised, condemned and rejected primarily on the ground of ‘India’s unity and integrity’. The sympathisers of the Babri Masjid agitation also disapproved of this move and requested the BMMCC to withdraw it. The Congress (I), BJP, CPI, and VHP officially condemned this call. The Janata Party and the CPI(M) asked the BMMCC to review its decisions and requested it to abandon its agitational programme. The CPI (ML-Santosh Rana) was the only political front that supported the BMMCC and asked others to join this call. (Muslim India 50, pp. 93-94)
Boycott or non-observance?
The most interesting condemnation of this ‘boycott call’ came from the ‘concerned citizens’: writers, intellectuals, journalists, artists, who prefer to call themselves ‘non-political’. The statement noted:
“on these occasions…our people should not be drawn into any controversy of partisan politics, sectarian polemics or conflict with government and administration…any attempt to abridge their importance or vitiate their significance is politically unwise, legally impermissible, nationally injurious and morally reprehensible’. (Muslim India, 50, pp.63-64)
This lucidly written statement does not differentiate between the ‘partisan politics’ of any kind and the ‘conflict with government and administration’. It implies that any kind of disagreement as well as conflict with the government and administration on these occasions could not be tolerated. In this sense, this statement seems to suggest that any attempt to challenge the given dominant State version of India’s heritage and its political legacy are not acceptable.
The BMMCC also contributed to the debate. It came out with an equally well-articulated argument. In a statement titled Call not against State but against Government and violator of Constitution issued on 11 January 1987, the BMMCC clarified the distinction between the term ‘boycott’ and ‘non-observance’. The statement noted:
“a boycott call would imply obstruction, resistance and mobilization, while non-participation or non-association is a voluntary act of sacrifice and self-imposed deprivation…The call of non-participation is not against the State but against the government; it is no illegal or un-constitutional in any sense of the term; it is neither unethical nor anti-national; it is not an act of treason or rebellion or revolt; it does not constitute any disrespect to the Constitution or to the Republic. The call is against those elements, who violate the Constitution and against a government, which fails to defend and protect the Constitution”. (Muslim India 50, p. 61)
This statement offered a ‘democratic’ explanation to the radical strategy adopted by the coalition. It also suggested a creative re-reading of the constitutional provisions. By adhering to the inherent democratic-constitutional, an attempt was made to question the actual functioning of the government. This intellectual explanation did not have any impact. The media kept on describing the call as a ‘boycott of Republic Day’.
The sympathisers of the Babri Masjid agitation started pressuring the BMMCC to withdraw the call. Even on 22 January 1987, then-President Giani Zail Singh made a formal appeal to the BMMCC to participate in the official celebration of the Republic Day. (Muslim India 51, p. 141)
By that time, the BMMCC had achieved its objective, at least symbolically. It had influenced the political system to recognise the ‘restoration of the Babri Masjid’ as a national issue. Thus, finally, on 25 January 1987, just one day before the Republic Day, the call was withdrawn.
The non-observance and/or the boycott call of 1987 cannot be compared with the farmers’ parade of 2021. However, one thing is common that links these two episodes — how to commemorate the Republic Day, politically. These two agitations remind us that the dominant official imagination of India, its past and its authentic people can be challenged, opposed and even rejected while celebrating the political values of our Constitution.
The author is Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi. Views are personal.