In recent days, the news coming out of India has been worrisome. A gang of masked assailants broke into one of India’s leading universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University. They went on a rampage for hours, attacking students and faculty, entirely undisturbed by the police. While the identities of the attackers remain unclear, what is clear is that many of the attacked were activists, and neither the government-appointed administration nor the police intervened. And this was in a capital city where everyone is usually on high alert. When even elite universities become literal battlegrounds, accusations that the government is attempting to suppress dissent—even if by apathy rather than design—gain substantial credibility.
It is easy to blame our leadership. But in a democracy as proud and storied as ours, we, the public, also bear a responsibility. After all, it was the citizenry that put our leaders into the office and acquiesced in their divisive manifesto, which they have taken as their marching orders. Some of us were hopeful that they would focus on the economic agenda. Some of us agreed with their speeches, which scratched and inflamed our own prejudices. Some of us were indifferent, thinking politics was someone else’s problem. And some of us feared the consequences of being critical, as critics were ruthlessly made examples of. At the end of the day, democracy is not merely a right, but it is also a responsibility—a burden to be the keepers of our Republic, not merely on election day but on every day.
Fortunately, the news from India has also been elevating. When young people of diverse faiths march together, Hindus and Muslims arm-in-arm behind our national flag, rejecting artificial divides stoked by political leaders for their own gain, they show that the spirit of our constitution still burns brightly. When officers of the administrative service resign their dream jobs because they do not believe they can serve in good faith, they are living testimony that the sacrifices made by the generations that got us freedom still inspire emulation.
When an Election Commissioner carries out his duties impartially despite the harassment it brings upon his family, he asserts that integrity has not been completely cowed. When some members of the media work tirelessly to get the truth out even as their colleagues succumb to government pressure, they demonstrate what it means to be a dutiful citizen of the Republic.
And when a Bollywood actress registers her silent protest by meeting with the victims of the attack on JNU, even though she puts attendance at her latest movie at risk, she inspires us all to take stock of what is truly at stake.
One has to be truly cynical to not be moved. These people show through their actions that they think truth, freedom, and justice are not merely lofty words, but ideals worth sacrificing for.
It is they who are fighting today for the India that Mahatma Gandhi gave his life for. It is they, who never marched to win freedom, but today march to preserve it, who give us hope that Rabindranath Tagore’s dream …“into that heaven of freedom, My Father, let my country awake” … will continue to be a reality.
The 26th of January marks the 70th anniversary of the day India gave itself a constitution, full of ideals and liberalism. Our constitution was not perfect, but it was crafted by learned men and women who had come through the horrors of a fratricidal partition and sought to create a more united future. They understood that India was capable of much good, but could also unleash terrible self-destructive forces, something some of our current leaders would do well to understand. So they drafted a document that attempts to draw out the best in us in a spirit of common purpose and pride.
What better resolution for the new decade than to re-dedicate ourselves to ensuring that this spirit burns strongly in each one of us? In these troublesome times, let us work together to make India that shining example of tolerance and respect that our founders envisioned, a beacon once more for a weary world. Let that be our task for the new decade.
(The author is a noted economist, Katherine Dusak Miller Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and a former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. The content above first appeared on Raghuram Rajan’s Linkedin page)