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Home / India News / Constitution @ 70: A look at how citizens are reanimating its progressive ideals

Constitution @ 70: A look at how citizens are reanimating its progressive ideals

As the Constitution completes 70 years, its stirring Preamble continues to inspire Indian citizens

india Updated: Jan 24, 2020 18:16 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
The massive protests against the CAA have brought the Constitution into the public discourse.  A demonstrator stands next to a hoarding of the Preamble to the Constitution in Delhi.
The massive protests against the CAA have brought the Constitution into the public discourse. A demonstrator stands next to a hoarding of the Preamble to the Constitution in Delhi. (REUTERS)

On January 17, Chandrashekhar Azad, the charismatic Bhim Army chief, arrived at the Indian Women’s Press Corps in Delhi for a meet-the-Press event, holding a copy of the Constitution. In his opening statement, which included a measured reading of the Preamble in Hindi, Azad, sporting his trademark blue scarf, said, “If the Bharatiya Janata Party government believes that the Preamble is provocative, then I do not mind reading it again … The Constitution says it is the duty of every citizen to protect it... I am doing that,” said the Ambedkarite activist and lawyer.

The Constitution completes 70 years today. Cutting across religion, gender, age, and caste, people across the country have been celebrating the 117,369-word document — which broke the conventional thinking prevalent at the time of its creation — in a unique way, by making it the centrepiece of their protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and, of late, the National Population Register (NPR). The trinity, dissenters say, goes against the fundamental constitutional principles of secularism and equality. To be sure, the government has said that there is no immediate plan for an NRC.

From the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, where on December 20, 2019, Azad held up the Constitution in one hand and a photo of BR Ambedkar in the other, to university campuses across the country, copies of the Constitution are being waved in the air, and the document is being celebrated for its progressive ideals.

In many places, such as Guwahati, citizens organised samvidhan (Constitution) sabhas; in other places, there have been well-attended marches, mass readings of the Preamble, accompanied by spirited renditions of the National Anthem, and the waving of the Tricolour.

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA
It’s not difficult to see why the Constitution, especially the Preamble, resonates with citizens, and continues to play a strong role in political activism and public argument in this country.

“The life of the Constitution lies in the Preamble. As a statement of principles and beliefs, it works to give life to the legal language of the Constitution,” explains Alok Prasanna, senior resident fellow, and head of the Bengaluru office of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. “It is framed in such a manner that each generation finds new meanings in its depths to meet their own needs.”

Historian and lawyer Rohit De’s The People’s Constitution, he adds, shows that the Constitution was always owned by the people, and that it is not a document drafted by the elites for the people.

To many, the Constitution is a document of inspiration, and a means to transform society and the State-citizen relationship. “The provenance of the Constitution isn’t as foreign as some would like us to believe. It is an Indian document. It is a document that we’ve given to ourselves. To keep our democracy thriving, therefore, we need to reanimate the Constitution’s spirit,” says Suhrith Parthasarathy, an advocate practising at the Madras High Court. “When we see people waving it today, what we’re seeing is a reclaiming of its text and spirit”.

CITIZEN-CENTRIC
The Constitution, which lays down the governance structure of the State, procedures, powers, and duties of government institutions, and sets out fundamental rights, directive principles, and the duties of citizens, is one of the landmark constitutions of our time.

In 1946, 389 men and women from a variety of intellectual backgrounds, and holding different ideas about the new nation, came together to form the Constituent Assembly (CA).

Right to Left: Jairamdas Daulatram, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Dr John Matthai, Sardar Patel, Jagjivan Ram signing the Constitution on the final day of the Constituent Assembly.
Right to Left: Jairamdas Daulatram, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Dr John Matthai, Sardar Patel, Jagjivan Ram signing the Constitution on the final day of the Constituent Assembly. ( HT FILE PHOTO )

The CA had a formidable task: Drafting a Constitution for a nation that was coming out of centuries of colonial rule, was poor and illiterate, riven by caste conflicts and religious and linguistic differences.

Yet, as legal scholar Madhav Khosla writes persuasively in The Indian Constitution, the Constitution’s creators decided that it should be a “decisive departure from the past.” The Constitution’s enumeration of rights, the granting of universal adult suffrage, finds no parallel in the colonial legal system. Importantly, Khosla adds, the CA was attentive to caste and religious identities, and also the rights of the regions, putting in place a federal State. “It was an extraordinary experiment in Indian history,” writes Khosla. Notably, despite the substantial presence of a single party in the CA (the Congress), the assembly was a body of remarkable intellectual diversity, and Jawaharlal Nehru must be celebrated for ensuring that.

While the document is loved by lawyers, they are not the custodians of the document; people are central to the Constitution, and are the real owners. “They [CA] believed in the possibility of creating democratic citizens through democratic politics,” Khosla writes in his latest book, India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy.

In that sense, the Constitution, lawyer Gautam Bhatia argues, was “transformative” too.

In his closing speech to the CA on November 25, 1949, its chairperson BR Ambedkar said: “Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.” These words, Bhatia writes in The Transformative Constitution, distilled the heart and soul of the document: “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were the three mutually reinforcing pillars.”

Thanks to these basic, universal ideals that the Constitution so well captured, the spirit and the values of the document have seeped into the crevices of India’s collective consciousness over the last 70 years, sometimes without citizens even realising it.

“Since the protests broke out and the State-led violence in my alma mater, I have been travelling to the poorest parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The poor are at a loss to understand the CAA-NRC... they may not use not use the word samvidhan in their protests, but have internalised the Constitution’s values, and are aware about the rights that it provides them,” says Dr Maskoor Ahmad Usmani, former president, Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union. “For the last 100 years, the farmers told me, they have provided food on the nation’s table without getting any land rights ... so why is the government now asking them to prove their citizenship?” Through these interactions, Usmani says he understood the “superior quality of the Constitution… its human values and ideals that are ensuring that these protests don’t turn violent”.

FOR THE APOLITICAL
The beauty of the Constitution is that its principles are not just spurring protests in expected political arenas, but also making the “apolitical” take a definite stand on the politics of the day.

“Our college has always stayed away from campus politics and protests. But this time we decided to join the protests because we want to reiterate that we still believe in constitutional values,” says Maitreyi Jha, a third-year BA Hons. (History) student at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College. “I think people are using the document to fight back, to highlight, and to remind the government that normalising a state of lawlessness and regular violation of rights doesn’t mean that people will forget the rights granted by the Constitution”.

The ongoing mobilisation and the re-reading of the Constitution could turn out to be a watershed moment for India.

“I don’t know what this movement will achieve; tomorrow Shaheen Bagh [a locality in south Delhi where citizens have been holding protests, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, for more than one month now] may die down, students will go back to classes, but India will never be the same again,” says Aman Wadud, a “citizen-lawyer” from Assam, where the first spark of protests against the citizenship law was lit.

 

STORY OF THE ARTWORK
Artist Nandalal Bose, a proponent of the Bengal School, and his team of students from Kala Bhavan worked on the art that helms each of the 22 parts of the Constitution. The subject matters range across historical time periods and personages: a seal from Mohenjo Daro, scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Buddha and his disciples, the courts of Gupta and Maurya emperors, sculptures from the South and Orissa, Akbar’s court, Tipu Sultan and Laxmibai, Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose.
The work of Nandalal Bose and his students was influenced by ancient murals, medieval sculptures and Far Eastern styles. The result was the first foray of Indian modernist art, which favoured an idiom centred on Indian ethos and eschewed the overarching Western academic approach prevalent at the time.
Calligrapher Prem Behari Narain Raizada (Saxena) wrote the text in Hindi and English reportedly, over six months.
The borders are in the Hashia-style, used in the time of Mughal emperor Jehangir, which meant highly ornate borders that often eclipsed the subject of the work itself. All pages have a simple, gold speckled border, but some pages, such as the opening page of a Schedule, and where it ends, have a second inner border of gold ornament.
According to curator Naman Ahuja, the pages with illustrations were first painted and then sent to the calligrapher. The calligrapher then sent the pages to the framers. On some pages, the signatures of some of the members of the Constituent Assembly run out of the designated column space, and the borders have been cut to accommodate their signatures. This division of work and its sequencing — from calligrapher to framer — allowed ateliers to work independently.
– Dhamini Ratnam

 

WHERE IS THE ORIGINAL CONSTITUTION?
The original copies of the Indian Constitution, in Hindi and English, are kept in Parliament. It is the property of Parliament. The replicas are displayed in the Parliament library, and are also available for sale at counters inside the Parliament. It is difficult for those outside Delhi to access the replicas. Chennai-based entrepreneur Vijay Anand realised this in 2016 when he wanted to gift a copy of the Constitution to his relatives in Germany. Instead of getting deterred, Anand decided to produce replicas himself. He has created 50 hardbound copies of the Constitution in A3 size using online images, photographs and replicas of the original as references. "I accessed 14 copies during my research. Most of them were in bad shape. The ones which are intact are put for auction and are really expensive," said 36-year-old Anand, who is now working to create 250 more copies. "There is demand from schools and public libraries. They have approached me for copies."