We the people: how the country is reclaiming democracy, one symbol at a time

From poetry to the Preamble, the country is reclaiming democracy, one symbol at a time

Updated - January 19, 2020 02:14 pm IST

Published - January 17, 2020 03:48 pm IST

Dalit human rights activist Martin Macwan mailed last week about a project that Navsarjan Trust is launching. A wooden toy house that will be used to teach citizens the basic provisions of the Constitution — what does the structure’s foundation represent, what do its many doors stand for, its wide-open windows and so on. On January 25, the eve of India’s 71st Republic Day, the programme is to be inaugurated.

I was delighted with the mail — I see in it yet another way in which the ongoing anti-CAA protest has helped us, almost as it were, rediscover the country and our relationship with it. In all these years I have not seen the Constitution, the samvidhan , being touched and discussed and shared by the masses with the intimacy and familiarity of a Sholay script . Whether smarmy TV anchors or young lawyers, whether students or homemakers, taxi drivers or actors, the Constitution is today their lodestar, in exactly the way its framers had intended it to be.

In school, we had to mug up the Preamble to the Constitution for exams. In adulthood, this simple yet powerful manuscript found no place in the ugly political jungle we had created. Now, as it is read out loud by crowds ten thousand strong in protest after protest, you realise that this is exactly how it should be. The preamble says, “We the people of India… give to ourselves this Constitution,” and when ordinary people declaim it in public, one sees democracy reclaimed and played out in the very theatre of its origins.

Reclamation — that is the overwhelming victory the protests have already won. Ordinary people, the Amars, Akbars and Anthonys, have wrenched back one democratic symbol after another, symbols that had slipped so far out of the nation’s grasp in these last six years as to engender a real fear of their being lost forever.

When the absurd rule to play the national anthem in cinema halls was introduced, I remember how infuriated it made me. I love singing the anthem, but I was damned if I would let a bunch of loony thugs force me to do so. By taking control of the anthem, by dictating who should sing it and where, the grinches stole the anthem and took its essence away. To see people harassed and beaten up if they didn’t sing it was to see the anthem itself being manhandled and polluted.

So, when a bunch of slogan-shouting bullies descended upon a Delhi park, it was terrific to see the protestors gathered there burst into ‘Jana Gana Mana’. They simply drowned out the shouting and forced the gang to retreat. The telling thing here is that the bullies did not join the singing, but nobody beat them up and nobody asked them to go to Pakistan.

There is an artlessness in the plain singing of the anthem that one need not intellectualise too much. It is important, instead, to understand its power to move and to signify. And that power the people have recovered. In protest after protest, the anthem is being sung today the way it’s meant to be — freely, willingly, joyously. And everywhere the tricolour is unfurled, sometimes several kilometres long, in potent contrast to the saffron flags of the self-proclaimed nationalists.

Gandhi’s ‘Vaishnava Janato’ has been rediscovered, if it ever went away. And the very first line, vaishnava jana to, tene kahiye je / peed paraayi jaane re (call that person a sage who feels the pain of others), establishes a rich irony — that a prime minister from Gujarat claims ownership of all things Hindu and yet misses the main point of this Gujarati bhajan by Narsi Mehta.

From foods to clothes, from universities to PhD degrees to even Urdu, the government has systematically distorted ordinary, familiar things into twisted, angry shapes, creating monsters from memories. The peaceful face of Hanuman now snarls in anger from car stickers and the Muslim prayer la illaha ilallah is held up as some sort of menacing bogeyman.

In this atmosphere of hate and bigotry, to hear Faiz and Habib Jalib quoted night after night is to thumb your nose at the trolls in no uncertain fashion. And when you hear the crowds chanting those infectious azadi slogans or shouting out Rahat Indori’s immemorial words, “Kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai,” you know India has reclaimed its voice again.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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