Nothing is in greater disuse, perhaps, than mottos. The motto of the school in which I studied was “To work is to pray.” No one ever seemed influenced by it. The motto of my college –St. Stephen’s- is: Ad Dei Gloriam, or “To the Glory of God”. Going by the motto, everything in and about the college must be done in a manner that honours God, which was hardly the case. The plight of our national motto is no different. “Truth alone triumphs; not falsehood.” Any takers for it?
Our national motto does not disquiet us because we do not take it seriously. We scarce remember it. If truth alone triumphs, why does propaganda –the sole function of which is to lie and to mislead- enjoy such an ascendancy today? What about industrial advertising, which makes delicate and delicious falsehood highly profitable? Even more seriously, to what extent is this motto consistent with freedom of speech?
We have to accept the ethical responsibilities our national motto enjoins on us. What, then, does it mean to believe that truth necessarily triumphs?
It means that we have a duty to be tolerant of differences. No one persecuted the bearers of truth in the past because truth was not acceptable. In fact it was for the sake of truth that persecutions were resorted to. The persecutors of the truthful believed sincerely and zealously, that they were striking all blows in defence of truth and in defiance of falsehood. They were marked by ‘righteous zeal.’ It was for the sake of truth that horrendous atrocities were inflicted on those who should have been hailed the pride of our species.
Secondly, our national motto, if we are serious about it, puts us under the obligation to respect the ambiguities inherent in the human condition. Intolerance, as John Stuart Mill argues, often issues from passionately held beliefs. The tolerance that stems from indifference is worthless. A person with no convictions or commitment is barely human. The crucial challenge in civilized existence is to combine the energy of passionate convictions with the strength of tolerance based on compassion and fellow feeling. Conviction sans compassion is criminality waiting to happen.
Thirdly, the motto also enjoins on us the duty to have a rudimentary sense of history. History testifies that many of the truths we take for granted today were persecuted as heresies and dangerous delusions in the past. If so, it makes sense to be responsibly sceptical of our monopoly over truth at any given point in time. In respect of truth we can only be –and that is the tremendous insight that our ancient seers have given us- seekers, not defenders or vigilantes. Seekers treat truth as light; custodians treat it as a commodity to be protected. The former keeps mental doors and windows open to newer possibilities; the latter slams them shut. The persecution of the truthful, for the sake of God or truth, issues from this mental darkness.
Fourthly, to endorse our national motto is to respect freedom of thought and expression as a fundamental right for all. In the political context, this essential aspect of human freedom has been imperilled whenever governments became embodiments of the will of majorities. This, however, is the exception; not the rule. In most instances there is a healthy cleavage between the will of the State and the will of the people; the latter identified at present almost wholly –and unfortunately- with public opinion. A certain tension between public opinion and the State-generated versions of realities is essential for the health of a democracy. Totalitarian trends and tendencies get activated when the two become one, as seems to happen at the present time, of which State-countenanced vigilantism is a worrisome symptom.
Finally, to believe meaningfully and vitally that truth triumphs is to believe in one’s own individuality. Truth, except when enfleshed through individual life, is an abstraction. Victory and defeat are irrelevant to abstractions. As Gandhiji realized, truth has to be incarnated through individual thinking, choosing and acting. Truth can only get desiccated in a massified, faceless, regimented culture wherein individuals exist like railway compartments hitched to an engine. They go whither they are pulled. They are apparently free to move, but it is, by no stretch of imagination, their movement, even if they, pulled by the engine, travel a thousand miles non-stop. Individuals are more like trees that grow on all sides as per the vital energy within them. Truth stands an even chance to triumph through them and not through what Emile Durkheim in Suicide calls a society of anomie, comprising disorganized dust of individuals. It merits being a serious concern that the developing scenario in our country is, in a variety of ways, inhospitable to the vitality and authenticity of human individuality.
History, like a river, is a ceaseless flow. If so, today’s certainties couldbe washed cleaner by the waters of change soon enough. This does not mean that we must not beholden during beliefs or passionate convictions. It only means that we must not absolutize them to the extent of becoming intolerant and blind to the rainbow colours of truth, some of which are painted on the persons and people-groups we resent. This, incidentally, is the logic for plurality, multi-culturalism and religious tolerance. Tolerance, not dogmatism, is conducive to human progress. It is historically naïve, therefore, to dream of development and to encourage agents and advocacies of intolerance. The spirit of our national motto is basic to development. If, in the past, we did not prosper and progress by our motto, the fault was not with the motto, but with ourselves, who bothered not to walk in the light it radiated.