Reclaiming the Republic, and the Constitution

There is an urgency now — Indians have a collective duty to reassert the values and central role the Constitution has played in determining the dreams and the vision of a united and plural India

January 26, 2024 12:16 am | Updated 08:39 am IST

‘The idea of a “Hindu Rashtra” is in direct contradiction to the Indian Constitution’

‘The idea of a “Hindu Rashtra” is in direct contradiction to the Indian Constitution’ | Photo Credit: PTI

On January 22, 1947, the “Objective resolution” of the Indian Constitution was unanimously adopted by the Constituent Committee. This became the inspiring and powerful Preamble to the Indian Constitution. And now, as the Indian Republic enters its 75th year, a mammoth state-sponsored spectacle has undermined the determined resolve of both the Preamble and the basic structure of the Indian Constitution for India to be a secular nation.

The flattening of multidimensions

However, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s agenda being presented at this time, is not just making the state ‘theocratic’ and the majority religion ‘political’. It is part of an unprecedented effort to create a unidimensional culture in a nation that has been the home of a multitude of cultural practices. Indians will also have to decide whether to walk the path of a top down, politically imposed Hindutva; or respond culturally to ensure that the vibrant cultural landscape including a myriad of religious practices prevails , nurturing our diversity and building tolerance, rather than suspicion and hate for the ‘other’.

The political nature of the Hindutva effort is to flatten our multidimensional imagination into a two-dimensional vision of “ourselves” and the rest of the world. Even the somewhat clichéd messages of “unity in diversity” have gone. It is now one nation, one market, one colour, one language, one election, and, of course, one official religion. Even within the majority religion, which has never had one set of laws, or a high priest, we are witnessing a concerted, centralised effort to determine its “national norms”. Others will be allowed to exist, but either through official or unofficial fiat, the attempt is to make them all subservient to the dominant identity. Even religion is being centralised.

Freedom of faith and worship is intrinsic to humanity, individually and in groups. Some of the most powerful manifestations of the diversity of faith have been continually played out in India.

To be Indian was to be complex, to represent differences. There was anticipation about the context, cultural nuances and political alliances of every Indian you met. The person unravelled the nuances of language, food, clothes and cultural choices, weaving together a vibrant and colourful tapestry. Why, if we are proud of our heritage, do we rush to follow others who do not have the richness of diversity? It is perhaps because the ones driving this are attracted by the power and the control that centralisation and identity politics helps exercise.

Post-Independence, and Partition, we have grown up with the flavour of multiple choices including the liberty to opt-out of what we were born into. It was the freedom to choose. We defined choices as those that liberated us from the narrow definitions of stereotypes — including religious, caste and racial identities. Liberation included the right to step out of those two-dimensional definitions, to realise our potential, and have the freedom to eat, wear, sing, and think in multiple ways. For those of us living in cosmopolitan ‘Indian spaces’, it meant understanding the plural ways in which one celebrated even a ‘Hindu’ festival. Dusshera was celebrated in many ways — with a Durga pandal, a Tamil Navaratri with dolls, the north Indian Ram Lila, and the nuanced differences of every State and language group represented there. One looked with pity at cousins trapped in a single identity and who had to live in a single language zone.

The Constitution’s space for diversities

India’s Constitution adopted 75 years ago, recognised and incorporated space for these diversities and differences, not just in politics but also in culture, and how we led our lives. What we count as progress has been built on sanctified objectives of tolerance and solidarity even as we faced the seemingly insurmountable challenges of competing interests. This was a sophisticated perspective written into the Constitution, that knew that differences had to be tolerated, if not welcomed to make India something more than a collection of kingdoms or a “former colony”.

The heroes of the nascent nation saw an India emerge with understanding the need to break caste, language and religious barriers. They celebrated cultural differences, and worked to overcome arrogance and prejudice. B.R. Ambedkar recognised the huge challenge presented in the search for economic and social equality. These values shaped and defined the Constitution. A document which is a democratic and ethical pledge, now critically important to India’s future. The Preamble resolves that we will practise fraternity “assuring the dignity of the individual, and the unity and integrity of the Nation”. To every Indian this document is a guarantee of our right to live with liberty, equality, and justice.

The idea of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is in direct contradiction to the Indian Constitution, but its proponents have used the political and democratic freedom provided by the Republic to propagate their conception of Hindutva aggressively. January 22, 2024 saw a brazen crossing of many red lines of the Indian Constitution, with every arm of the state giving in, and even endorsing the violation and marginalisation of secular principles.

B.R. Ambedkar warned us with uncanny wisdom, “Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever ...This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against.”

S. Radhakrishnan, the second President of India, was also wary of what could happen in a situation of majoritarian assertion and said: “our national faults of character, our domestic despotism, our intolerance which have assumed different forms of obscurantism, of narrow mindedness, of superstitious bigotry... Our opportunities are great, but let me tell you that when power outstrips ability, we will fall on evil days.”

India faces stark choices

With the state-driven consecration of the temple in Ayodhya sending reverberations through our polity, and the celebration of the 75th year of our Republic upon us, we are faced with stark choices. Our choice for a Constitutional republic over a Hindu Rashtra has to be reasserted. These assertions made now will enable or cripple our children from claiming their place in the Republic of India.

The Indian Constitution has been conceived in a way that extends our rights and shared values far beyond the five-year cycle of elections and governments that come to power with an electoral majority. The Constitution sought to build a social democracy that protected the views and dignity of all — particularly if they were marginalised groups or communities, at all times. As we enter the 75th year of the Republic, perhaps more than ever before, we have a collective duty to reassert the values and central role the Constitution has played in determining the dreams and the vision of a united and plural India.

The Constituent Assembly had the wisdom and the ability to understand that this subcontinent called India, will survive only if there is equal respect for all its citizens. It is the commitment to tolerance in its principles, and the grace inherent in its practice, that helps us overcome the challenge of bigoted religious expression and insecurities. It enables us to include and embrace religious differences and the vast and complex history, architecture and culture that makes India unique in the world. It will also help India retain its space in the globe, as a true ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ rather than hurtle towards becoming a helpless particle in a fast-shrinking global economy and culture.

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey are social activists

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