A presidential message

Print edition : February 02, 2002

President K.R. Narayanan makes one of his characteristic calls to the conscience of the nation on the eve of Republic Day.

AS India celebrated its 53rd Republic Day on January 26, an unusual level of fervour marked the non-official functions held across the country to mark the occasion. Fifty-four years after the tricolour was adopted by the Constituent Assembly as the national flag, the citizens were free to fly the flag thanks to the amendment to the Flag Code. The amendment removed the restrictions that enabled only government offices and high functionaries of government to fly the national flag freely. The general public could do so, before the amendment, only on a few national days, such as Independence Day and Republic Day. The government's decision was a result of judicial intervention, following a public interest petition filed by Navin Jindal, a young industrialist from Madhya Pradesh, in the Delhi High Court. The case went up to the Supreme Court, which asked the government to set up a committee to examine the issue. The government's decision was based on the committee's report.

President K.R. Narayanan addresses the nation on the eve of the 53rd Republic Day of India.-

As a symbol of nationhood, the national flag will help build a pan-Indian identity. However, as President K.R. Narayanan said in his address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day, while celebrating this overt expression of national identity the nation should not forget the other symbols of nationhood, which are more intrinsic to the success of India's experiment with democracy and a stable system of government. Narayanan did not refer to the amendment of the Flag Code, but to seasoned observers the parallels he sought to establish were striking.

Among the other symbols Narayanan mentioned, the one that is relevant to the founding of the republic is December 13, which is now identified closely with the terrorist attack on Parliament House. Narayanan could not miss the coincidence: on December 13, 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru moved in the Constituent Assembly the Objectives Resolution declaring the resolve of India to become an independent sovereign republic and outlining the democratic, secular and social fundamentals of the Constitution of India. Paying tributes to the extraordinary courage and heroism of the ordinary security personnel at the Parliament House that saved the seat of democracy against the dastardly terrorist attack on December 13, 2001, he reminded the nation that its security was dependent on common people like them and that it was for their interests that its representatives should work.

In his analysis of what helped build democracy and a stable system of government in India, Narayanan identified as the crucial factors the use of peaceful means to resolve differences and a willing recognition of diversities. Lest India should become complacent with these superficial strengths, Narayanan would suggest that the causes of the nation's decline and degradation also needed to be analysed, in order to guarantee the survival of its democracy.

While there has been remarkable progress in the areas of literacy, the nutrition level of children, and life expectancy since Independence, Narayanan pointed out that the clearest indicators of development of a society would be the status of women and Dalits. With his characteristic candidness, Narayanan admitted that the standing of women in society was still generally deplorable, even though their rights were recognised as human rights and they were considered among the best of human resources and central actors of development.

Recalling events from the freedom movement, he said, 70,000 women participated in the Salt Satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi. Complimenting the various social movements across the country, he said: "It is uplifting to see the ordinary and poor women actively participating in movements and campaigns for constructive action such as the right to information, river revival programmes and rainwater harvesting and watershed management schemes. Election of almost one million women to panchayati raj institutions and their activities in such bodies have brought about a strategic shift in many of our developmental activities at the grassroots level."

However, Narayanan lamented the fact that the ill-treatment of and atrocities against women continued in a brutal manner. The Indian woman is dishonoured not only in panchayats but everywhere, including her own home, he said. Drawing lessons from the success of women's movements at the grassroots level could help get rid of this inequality and indignity, he said.

To Narayanan, the problem of Indian women is symbolic of the problem of inequalities and injustices in Indian society. "Even today it is amazing that we have not become an inclusive society in spite of the political triumph of our democracy," Narayanan said while describing the discrimination suffered by women and Dalits as a crying denial of democracy, which is enshrined in the Constitution.

NARAYANAN'S reference to the Bhopal Declaration, adopted at the recent conference on the Dalit agenda for the 21st century, held in the Madhya Pradesh capital (story on page 92), should hopefully begin a refreshing debate on the need to ensure diversity in the private sector. He said: "In the present economic system and of the future, it is necessary for the private sector to adopt social policies that are progressive and more egalitarian for these deprived classes to be uplifted from their state of deprivation and inequality and given the rights of citizens and civilised human beings. This is not to ask the private enterprise to accept socialism, but to do something like what the Diversity Bill and the affirmative action that a capitalist country like the United States of America has adopted and is implementing."

Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad, one of the organisers of the Bhopal Conference, explained the significance of what Narayanan said in his address: "In the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has special provisions which require every organisation or business house which has 15 or more employees to fill up a form displaying the ethnic, and racial composition of its workforce every year. This information is supplied to the Federal government. If there is any breach of the diversity principle, if anyone belonging to the racial or ethnic minority feels that he or she is discriminated against owing to his racial or ethnic background, he can file a lawsuit. In other words, the Federal government monitors the presence of members of the racial and ethnic minorities in every company. Because of the huge penalty imposed for the breach of the diversity principle, the private sector there has gone many many steps ahead of the government in ensuring diversity through recruitment, supplies and the award of dealerships."

Did Narayanan suggest that India too should have its own Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? Narayanan lays down office as President in July after completing an eventful five-year term, but his thought-provoking Republic Day-eve addresses will be remembered for long. This year's address - perhaps his last Republic Day-eve address, if he is not seeking another term as President - will hopefully begin a fresh debate on the need for such a commission to achieve similar goals in India.