On being asked whether he was apolitical, after being elected as vice president of the Indian Union, Mohammed Hamid Ansari’s answer was both surprising as well as instructive. “No citizen is apolitical; as a citizen, by definition, has to take interest in public affairs,” he was reported to have said in August 2007. This was surprising because it is often argued, in a parliamentary system like ours, that the office of the President and the Vice-President should be apolitical, and that this is hardly contested. It was also instructive because his answer asserts that the office of the Vice-President is not just a decorative position in its nature despite its limited power, but has an important role to play and take political decisions as and when required. Pertinent to add here is that someone being political does not necessarily means being a member or flag-bearer of a particular political party and guided by electoral and party politics. Moreover, implied in his answer was, even if someone becomes vice-president of India, it does not absolve him or her from his duty as a citizen of the country. In other words, every citizen has to be political no matter what position s/he is in.
One of the persistent themes of Ansari’s latest book, Citizen and Society, a compilation of his speeches and lectures delivered in different parts of India and abroad over the years is citizenship and its relationship with state of democracy, dissent, justice and empowerment for society as well as polity. The compilation presents before us a range of well researched, thought-provoking and engaging articles and papers. Divided in five broad sections, it covers issues of vital importance such as polity, identity, security, empowerment and global affairs. Ansari in his arguments and presentation is both scholastic as well forward looking. He engages with his audience, provoke them to think, question and take action instead of taking a back seat and keep cribbing about the sorry state affairs. What is remarkable is that, in doing so, he is not patronising and does not absolve the state, of which he is a representative, from its duties.
For instance, in his lecture on “Democracy and Dissent” he passionately argues that in a democracy the right to dissent is also duty of dissent. “It has been observed with much justice that the history of progress of mankind is a history of informed dissent. This can take many forms, ranging from conscientious objection to civil or revolutionary disobedience. In a democratic society, including ours, the need to accept difference of opinion is an essential ingredient of plurality. In that sense, the right to dissent also becomes the duty of dissent, since tactics to suppress dissent tend to diminish the democratic essence.” And he goes on to conclude that, “Every citizen of the republic has the right and duty to judge. Herein lies the indispensability of dissent.”
Likewise in his lecture titled, “Indian Muslims: Quest for Justice”, addressing leaders and activists of Muslim organisations, after dealing with the status of Muslims in India and reasons behind it, he proposes a threefold agenda. According him empowerment of Indian Muslims will come through a “sustain(ed) the struggle for the actualisation in full measure of legal and constitutional rights, to do so without being isolated from the wider community, and to endeavour at the same time to adapt thinking and practices to a fast changing world.”
Another very important article included in the compilation is on “Roles of Editors in Today’s Media”. In his address, which was delivered in March this year, at the inauguration of a seminar orgainsed by Rajya Sabha Television, he discusses the decline of the institutions at length, especially in the wake of speed news, evolution of digital space and social media. “It has to be admitted regrettably, that examples of editorial daring and demonstrating the high professional and ethical standards are now few and far between,” notes Ansari. However, he is quick to remind that does not mean the era of tall editors is over. “The challenges before editors arising from ready access that readers have to alternate sources of information and the increasing expectation on editors to focus on marketing and revenue – even as a larger proportion of the editorial staff gets deployed to revenue raising work, is daunting”. To deal with the situation Ansari suggests “an editor must “ensure that the content is accurate and relevant, be impartial and independent and be fair and respectful.”
In his lecture titled, “A Century of Turmoil in West Asia: Some Pitfalls of Nationalism” there is a lesson for us as he recaps, “Nationalism has also been viewed as ‘a deeply divisive force if it is not tempered by the spirit of tolerance and compromise or the humanitarian universalism of a non-political religion. Its stress on national sovereignty and cultural distinctiveness hardly helps to promote cooperation among people at the very same time when for technological and economic reasons they grow more and more interdependent.” In another lecture discussing “Sacred and Secular” Ansari advocates, “A truly modern approach should be eschew both and go beyond mere tolerance and religio-philosophical notions to positive acceptance and accommodation on the basis of equal citizenship in actual practice.”