The dignity of his high office probably prevented the President identifying those he had in mind when slamming a “blinkered” sense of patriotism, but in an ambience in which every critic of the government risks being condemned as anti-national, or seditious, it is easy to discern which entity Mr Pranab Mukherjee was talking about when opening the 77th session of the Indian History Congress. In an ambience which requires citizens, particularly those from minority communities, to continually re-prove their nationalist credentials, highly salubrious was his advice that “patriotism should not result in ‘blinkered’ approaches in interpreting history, or a compromise with truth in order to justify an “argument of choice”. There was need, the President asserted, for scholars to be as objective as possible in their approach to history, adding that the freedom to doubt, disagree and dispute intellectually must be protected as an essential pillar of democracy. While the President has never backed away from speaking out on such ticklish issues, the forthright presentation under focus points to his entertaining serious misgivings over prevailing trends in the national discourse that militate against the liberal traditions from which Indian democracy draws sustenance. Extensive quotations rom the President’s address are necessary to underscore what appears to be exercising his thinking.
“It is natural to love one’s country and see as much glory in its past as one can detect. But, no society is perfect and history must be also seen as a guide on what went wrong and what were the contradictions, deficiencies and weaknesses of the past. An objective pursuit of history, such as our best historians have attempted, requires an impartial mind of a judge and not the mind of an advocate. We must keep our eyes open for unfamiliar ideas and be ready to consider a range of different inferences or assumptions”. Since it was a history congress not a politicians’ conclave that he was addressing, Mr Mukherjee spoke of the past, but pointed to how that influenced the present and the future. Those presently calling the shots and seeking to have various institutions headed by persons with saffron-tinted thinking would be uncomfortable with the observation that there has been an ‘unfortunate tendency’ to take umbrage at the expression of any view perceived to be hostile to our social or cultural institutions past or present. Similarly, critical appraisals of heroes and national icons of the past have been met with hostility or sometimes even violence, he pointed out.
And he delivered his knock-out punch when using Amartya Sen-terminology to assert that the greatest strength of India was its pluralism: social, cultural, and linguistic diversity. “Our traditions have always celebrated the argumentative Indian and not the intolerant Indian.” Bravely spoken, Sir.