A 70-year-old document that fights social discrimination
Growing up in the remote village of Chikhalbeed in Maharashtra’s parched Beed district, caste-based humiliation was Keshav Waghmare’s daily companion. Every afternoon, Waghmare’s friends would drop by his house for a quick snack, but after a conservative family found out about this, put a stop to it. “My friend told me that his mother had asked him to never eat food in our house. That was the day I realised what caste I was,” said Waghmare.
To the downcast teenager, a small booklet at home that compiled the essential tenets of the Constitution was succour. Waghmare didn’t understand the entire document but says he internalised its central tenet: Equality.
Once he had moved to a bigger city and pulled his family out of poverty, Waghmare, now a businessman, didn’t forget what the Constitution meant to him. He now spends his spare time in three slums that ring his neighbourhood, teaching young people from lower-caste communities about the Constitution and the person who steered its writing, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. “I realised that it is important to tell the youth about constitutional principles, about equality and dignity. We need the light of the Constitution to fight social inequality,” he said.
He isn’t the only one.
A new generation of people, from cartoonists and school teachers to small publishers and regional magazine editors, are working to make the Constitution more accessible to people and inspiring new groups to familiarise themselves to a document often called the backbone of Indian democracy.
“To me, it is a grand democratic exercise,” said Sutapa Mondal, a teacher in West Bengal who translates parts of the Constitution into Bengali and designs word games around it.
The Constituent assembly began drafting the guiding document for the nascent Indian democracy in the shadow of political uncertainty and unprecedented violence. There was also a strong demand from the political leadership to speed up the process of writing the Constitution, and keep open the possibility of easy amendments by Parliament later. But the seven-member drafting committee, headed by Ambedkar, was determined to not let the existing political situation affect its work, and insisted on a detailed discussion — the Assembly ended up considering nearly 7,500 amendments that were tabled by the members.
“Ambedkar argued that the nitty-gritty of everyday function needed to be included because, at the time, India lacked constitutional morality. This is why the Constitution is so detailed,” said Vivek Kumar, a professor of sociology at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Scholars say the detailed nature of the Constitution set the tone for a grassroots democracy. “It is the vision of the document that has made us survive as a constitutional democracy, and enabled us to hold ourselves together in testing times,” said Kumar.
A concern flagged by many scholars in recent years has been the rise of anti-constitutional feelings in some sections of the population — be it in the dogged persistence of caste-based crimes, pervasive gender-based violence, threats and bias against minorities, or entrenched social and economic inequality that threaten to derail the promise of the Constitution.
“We have not been able to tell the general masses that the Constitution is not just a general book. It is a social text, and it needs engagement by everyone,” said Kumar.
Social engagement is what people such as Waghmare and Mondal are aiming at. Across India, from Maharashtra to West Bengal, Tamil Nadu to Uttar Pradesh, various people are innovating to bring the Constitution alive.
Sahebrao Patekar, is a small bookseller who stocks books, magazines and leaflets that deal with Ambedkar, his writings on the Constitution, fundamental rights, the Preamble, and other tenets of India’s founding document. “Most of the books are in Marathi and are priced between 30 and 400 rupees,” he said.
In Pune, Vilas Wagh’s Sugava Prakashan helms the publication of literature around the Constitution, simplifying it and making it accessible to the people. The same role has been essayed by Chaturtha Duniya, a publication house headed by writer Manohar Mouli Biswas.
This has inspired a new generation of people to experiment with the Constitution. In Bengal, activist Milan Nirjhar Mridha’s organisation will host an event to mark Constitution Day on November 26, and helps people bring out a magazine in Bengali on the Constitution.
A new addition to this repertoire is graphic novels and cartoons. Delhi-based typeface and graphic designer Pooja Saxena has embarked on a challenging project to render the Preamble of the Constitution in digital typeface and ultimately make posters. “It’s so essential to deal with dense topics so that the everyday matters are put in context. Graphic stories can be a way of making dense topics more approachable,” said Satwik Gade, a cartoonist.
Seventy years after the Constitution was adopted, it is still inspiring communities in their struggle for dignity. Grace Banu, a Tamil Nadu-based activist, often distributes literature in Tamil and focuses on the Constitution in her fight for transgender rights. “Even in our fight against the transgender rights bill of the government, we use the argument of constitutional rights. For us, the Constitution is the light in a very dark night.”