President’s address to the nation encapsulated what the values of our Republic ought to be
Many were quick to link certain references in President Ram Nath Kovind’s first Republic Day address to the nation to the violence by vigilante groups against the release of a period film duly certified for public exhibition, and other comments in his speech to the recent goings-on in the higher judiciary. On the former issue, it was the President calling for a civic-minded society where one could dis-agree with each other’s viewpoint —or even with a historical context—without mocking each other’s dignity and personal space. On the latter, was his iteration that our national institutions need to be disciplined, morally upright and that the individuals who populate them should never consider themselves more important than the institutions they serve, which in turn should work towards continuing to respect fraternal relations with the other institutions of our Republic. If as is likely the connections made were what the President intended, both interventions were soberly worded, timely, and given recent events that have marred our national life, apt.
It would, however, be a rank injustice to the President of India if we, as sections of the media tend to, focus on the parts that while significant are not greater than the whole. For, President Kovind’s maiden Republic Day address was a majestically magisterial exposition of the values that ought to inform our Republic not episodically but in perpetuity. Indeed, his address was in its essence a plea, even a rebuke, to citizens low and high who may have let their own beliefs and prejudices trump our collective imperative to value the Republic. In urging fellow citizens to respect their co-citizens’ space, privacy and rights because a “civic-minded nation is built by civic-minded neighborhoods, whether in our cities or our villages” the President was asking very clearly that we respect the person next door’s autonomy. The right of Indians not be inconvenienced, as it were, by his/her fellow Indians celebrating their festivals or protesting on an issue that they may hold close to their hearts was also quite emphatically reinforced by the President. Re-pledging the national will not to compromise on institutional excellence was the other big Presidential ask from the nation.
The standout shout from India’s first citizen to his country woman and countrymen, though, has to be the twin pitch for gender equity and an educational system that encourages children to think and learn as opposed to memorizing textbooks by rote. Laws as he pointed out, can only provide an enabling environment for girls and women; for them to succeed in finding their independent voice and actualize their desires in every field our largely patriarchal societal, community and family structures have to change. Given the canards spread about the current dispensation’s allegedly regressive views on gender rights from those who had the opportunity for over half a century to ensure a level-playing field for women regardless of which community they belong to, the President was entirely on point. On education, the Indic civilizational knowledge-quest, under-theorized and ignored for long, may if properly fund-ed and aided by high-quality institutional support, prove a welcome parallel stream of analytical excellence even as we strive to improve the quality of our mainstream colonial-inherited structures which have been changed beyond recognition even by their progenitors in their own country. Allied to a focus on ensuring an end to the abiding national shame of malnutrition, not to mention hunger, and a non-negotiable respect for the Rule of Law as urged by the President, who broke with convention by not listing out the achievements of past leaders in what had become a hagiographical tradition of late, an empowered Republic can certainly be brought to fruition.