“Pluralism is not anybody’s gift, it cannot be taken away”: Former vice president Hamid Ansari

Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Hamid Ansari was the vice president of India for two consecutive terms, from 2007 to 2017. A career diplomat, he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1961. Ansari subsequently served in the Indian missions in Iraq, Belgium and Saudi Arabia, and was the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. From 1993 to 1995, he was India's Permanent Representative at the United Nations. After his long tenure in international diplomacy, Ansari was appointed to the position of vice chancellor at the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, in 2000. He also served as the chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities from 2006 to 2007.

In May this year, in an interview at his Delhi residence, Ansari spoke to the independent journalists Jipson John and Jitheesh PM on foreign policy, the importance of the constitution, the challenges to Indian democracy, and the threat of majoritarianism. “We are an electoral democracy and we conduct the elections very well,” he said. “But are we a substantive democracy? The answer is no. There is a vast difference between the two.”

Jipson John and Jitheesh PM: You have spoken about the importance of the constitution. Do you think that it is under threat today?
Hamid Ansari: I will not use the word “threat” but certain sections of the public are beginning to ask whether it can be recast. So, to that extent, it is a matter of interest to every citizen, including myself. I think [the economist] Prabhat Patnaik in his recent article “Shadow of Fascism” in Frontline has articulated well the present situation. It is looming but we are refusing to accept yet.

JJ and JPM: Recently, you released a book, The RSS: A Menace to India, written by AG Noorani. To what extent is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ideology in our polity and discourse these days?
HA: It is there. There is ample data in public about RSS activities beginning with details of daily activities in shakhas. [Shakhas are the basic units of the RSS’s organisational structure.] The RSS has a unique feature. It has not proclaimed itself to be a political party. It says it is a cultural organisation. Its constitution says that its objective is serving the Hindu segment of the Indian society. I cannot quarrel with that as long as it is within the framework of the laws of the land. It is the constitution which is the basic law of the land and everything else has to observe it. Our constitution was drafted with great insight and care by people who had experience of public life. They came from all parts of the country. It suited the post-colonial and post-independence period. When we established a democratic political system, many people were sceptical about it, but our system has survived to this day.

JJ and JPM: Pluralism has been the hallmark of our society and nation. But today we see many challenges to this idea. Are you worried about this?
HA: Pluralism is not something which is gifted by somebody to us. Indian society has always been plural. Our constitution makers and political leaders accepted this ground reality and crafted on it a secular, democratic state system. So pluralism is a fact of social life. When you travel from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Tripura to Gujarat, you notice the diversity in the everyday life of Indians. Since pluralism is not anybody’s gift, it cannot be taken away unless you run a road roller and squash everything beneath it.

Jipson John and Jitheesh PM are fellows at the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research based in New Delhi.

Keywords: Hamid Ansari democracy plurality Constitution majoritarianism foreign policy Elections 2019