Conscience Keeper | Society

How people have turned to the Constitution to articulate their vision of India

Chandrashekhar Azad holds up a copy of the Constitution at a protest at Delhi’s Jama Masjid.   | Photo Credit: AFP

Last week, Oxford University Press announced that samvidhaan, meaning ‘constitution’, was the Oxford Hindi Word of 2019 — a distinction given to a word that has received much attention over the year and that has captured the mood and ethos. Over the last few weeks, the Indian Constitution has blossomed into a true “people’s document” and a rallying symbol for protesters who invoke its values.

Dalit activist Chandrashekhar Azad had a copy of the Constitution in his hand as he recently walked out of Tihar Jail, where he was incarcerated for over a month for leading a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) at the Jama Masjid in Delhi. “The police accused me of delivering a provocative speech at the protest. But all I did that day was read out the Preamble to the Constitution,” he said.

The day after he was released, he returned to the steps of the Jama Masjid and again read the Preamble aloud, as a crowd several thousands strong waved the tricolour. “We are from the depressed communities and the Constitution is all we have. We will fight to save it at any cost,” he said.

Loud and clear

Reading the Preamble aloud as a pledge has become a distinct ritual at several anti-CAA protests across the country, be it at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi or the Gateway of India in Mumbai or at universities and mosques and Eidgah Maidans everywhere. The Constitution has become both a mode and a symbol of protest. As Azad said, “It is a telling comment that reading the Constitution has become an act of protest today, even as the republic completes seven decades.”

In an interesting turnaround and reclamation, it is the protests today that have embraced the nationalist symbols of the tricolour, the national anthem and the Constitution in what is clearly a response to the hyper-nationalistic pitch of the ruling government with its proclivity to brand anyone opposing it as ‘anti-national’.

And in this moment lies also an attempt to rediscover the inclusive nationalism of the freedom movement. “The Preamble is the most succinct articulation of that vision, what we as a country resolved to stand for as we became independent. It is simple, accessible yet very profound,” says Vinita Singh, one of the founders of the We, The People Abhiyan, which runs a two-hour Preamble workshop (over 1,000 held so far) and a short course on citizenship and the Constitution. The Abhiyan has also created videos for social media.

“The Preamble was there in all our textbooks, but it was never discussed in class. Today I have seen it come to life and articulate what I felt so well, overwhelming me with pride for the vision it embodies and with a resolve to fight for it,” says Sumana R., an undergraduate student.

Students at a Mumbai primary school recite the Preamble during the morning assembly.

Students at a Mumbai primary school recite the Preamble during the morning assembly.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Vision statement

Many thinkers attribute the resurgence of interest in the Constitution to some actions of the government. “The government has brought about far-reaching changes to the structure of the Constitution, which question the vision and character of the country as imagined in the Constitution. So, the people are now engaging with the Constitution, finding that vision attractive,” says Gautam Bhatia, a constitutional law expert and author of the recent book, The Transformative Constitution: A Radical Biography in Nine Acts. A series of changes, including the dilution of Article 370, curbs on freedom of expression through an Internet ban in Kashmir, and the use of force against dissenters have triggered this, besides the discriminatory CAA.

This is not the first time that the ruling party has been accused of motives to reorient the Constitution according to its vision of the nation.

Similar fears were expressed when the NDA regime led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee set up the National Commission for Review of Working of the Indian Constitution, led by former Chief Justice of India M.N. Venkatachaliah, in 2000, when the Republic completed half a century. The Committee, however, steered clear of controversies.

In 2017, Anantkumar Hegde, MP from Karnataka and a Union Minister then, said they had indeed come to power to change the Constitution. He later had to apologise for the remark in Lok Sabha after it caused a furore.

Alternative view

The suspicions concerning the BJP's motives stem from the well-known stance of its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its vision of a Hindu Rashtra and its early criticism of the Constitution.

In an attempt to allay these fears, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently said: “We do not want any power centre other than the Constitution because we believe in it.”

Ironically, it was this same government that, in 2015, declared November 26 — the day the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution — to be Constitution Day. It has been observing the day nationally ever since.

There’s another reason the Constitution has become so integral to the protests. “As against the Hindutva right, the liberal political parties have not been able to articulate what they stand for. It is in this vacuum that young people have taken to the Preamble, as it succinctly articulates a vision that they now find attractive,” says Aakash Singh Rathore, author of the upcoming book Ambedkar’s Preamble: The Secret History of the Constitution of India.

Dissenting voices

“While social media opened up conversations, the troll armies created a sense of free speech being under attack. This was accentuated by how the government dealt with dissent. It has pushed many to articulate their voice in the idiom of constitutional rights,” says Singh.

Justice Nagamohan Das, former Karnataka High Court judge, has launched a campaign called ‘Samvidhana Odu’ (Read the Constitution), interacting with students across Karnataka for over a year now.

He says, “This is a moment of disillusionment. People have lost faith in all political parties. They had already lost faith in the legislature and executive. I feel sad to say this, but of late, they have lost faith in the judiciary as well. They have realised it is only the Constitution that can save the country today. Through this movement, I think they are telling politicians that whoever comes to power must govern as per the Constitution.”

What it also shows is that the movement has gone beyond the question of legality, says Bhatia. “The Preamble is not a legally binding document, but a vision statement we committed ourselves to when the country became a republic. Even if the Supreme Court tomorrow upholds these moves as legally valid, the people are arguing that they are not in line with the vision of the Preamble. This nuance is important.”

For Singh, it’s an invaluable moment. “I hope people, especially the youth, from now on evaluate every legislation and every government through the lens of the Preamble,” she says.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 8:24:17 AM |

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