‘WE THE PEOPLE’: A CALL TO REMEMBER WHAT THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION STANDS FOR! By Neera Chandhoke

By Neera Chandhoke

The constitution that the people of India gave to themselves was a product of mass struggle, political compromises, idealism and commitment to every citizen.

At a time when the country is overcome with mass hysteria about the inauguration of the Ram temple at the very site where once the majestic Babri Masjid stood, we should recollect the long road we have travelled from the onset of the freedom struggle and commitment to a multi-faith India to the rapid slide to majoritarianism. It is time to reflect on the descent from secularism to a muscular Hinduism that casts a pall of fear over democratic India.
The tragedy is that we came from a good place.
On May 1, 1947, Mahavir Tyagi, the Congress member from the United Provinces, suggested in the Constituent Assembly that consideration of minority rights should be postponed. “If there is to be a partition, we must know what is happening to the minorities on the other side, in the other units,” he said. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar replied resolutely that rights of minorities are absolute rights, they should not be held hostage to the policies of another country on its minorities. “I think that the rights which are indicated in clause 18 are rights which every minority irrespective of any other consideration is entitled to.” This was the ethos that India began its postcolonial life with.
We should recollect that after the massive communal riot in Kanpur in 1931, the Congress drafted the Karachi Resolution on Fundamental Rights. The Declaration emphasised the right of every citizen to profess, and practice her religion. Later that year, on March 31, Gandhi, moving the resolution on fundamental rights in the open session of the Congress in Karachi, spoke on the issue. Though Islamic and Aryan cultures are not mutually exclusive he said, we must recognise that Muslims look upon Islamic culture as distinctive from Aryan. Let us therefore cultivate tolerance. Religious neutrality is an important provision. Swaraj will favour Hinduism no more than Islam, nor Islam more than Hinduism. Let us from now on, he concluded, adopt the principle of state neutrality in our daily affairs. Gandhi knew that independence would bring formidable problems. These problems had to be resolved principally, not by the brute show of power.
Democratic India contributed to the making of an independent and secular India. A group of poets, who later coalesced into the Progressive Writers Association in 1936, wrote amazing lyrics to inspire the freedom struggle. Today the country is polarised between Hindi and Urdu. We forget that Maulana Hasrat Mohani (1875-1951) coined the phrase ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. This became the rallying cry of the freedom struggle; the anthem of revolutionaries. He demanded Azaadi e Kaamil or complete independence in 1921: ‘Rasm e jafa kaamyab dekhiye kab tak rahe/Hubb e watan mast e khwab kab tak rahe/Daulat e Hindustan qabzah aghyar mein/ Be adad O behisab dekhiye kab tak rahe’ (Let us see how long we are oppressed, how long freedom remains but a dream, and how long the British plunder India’s riches). When Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru, and Sukhdev marched to the gallows they raised the slogan of Inquilab Zindabad.
If revolutionaries were inspired by Chandrashekar Azad’s (1906-1931) poem: ‘Dushmanon ki goliyan ka hum samna karenge/Azad hi rahe hai, azaad hi rahenge’ (We will face the bullets of the enemy, we have been free and we will continue to be free), they were equally motivated by the poet of revolution Josh Malihabadi (1894-1982), ‘mera naara, inquilab o inquilab o inquilab’ (my slogan is revolution).
How do we differentiate between Hindu and Muslim poets? Both loved freedom and both wrote such amazing poetry to capture political resistance that in the process they transformed literature and poetry. Sajjad Zaheer, a progressive poet, wrote in his autobiography Reminiscences: ‘sensitive writers felt that they could not continue in the old mode…It was no longer possible for the writers to continue to live in ivory towers and remain unconcerned with the lives and thoughts of common people.’ He was referring to the wave of anti-fascism, socialism and radicalisation of culture, literature and poetry, or social realism, that swept India in the 1930s. Literary figures extended the goals of the freedom struggle to the fight against injustice and patriarchy within society. Witness the contrast between progressive writers and rabid Muslim and Hindu right-wingers who remain stuck in notions of ‘two nations’.
Bhisham and Balraj Sahni, Prithviraj, Raj and Shammi Kapoor and a number of stars including the debonair Dev Anand, as well poets- Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Sardar Jafri among others, spoke up and marched against communalism, poverty and social oppression in 1946 in Bombay. The progressives taught us that society has to look outwards towards imperialism, but it also has to also look inwards and focus on the many contradictions, oppressions, and tyrannies of our own society. They radicalised the freedom struggle.
At the first meeting of the PWA, Munshi Premchand gave the inaugural address in chaste Urdu. He told the audience that good literature can only be founded on truth, beauty, freedom and humanity. It has to reject all that inhibits human freedom and creativity, such as orthodoxy and obscurantism. ‘Literature is the outward form of the artist’s spiritual balance, and what harmony creates is never subversive. It nurtures in us the qualities of loyalty, sincerity, sympathy, justice and egalitarianism. Where these qualities exist, there is stability and life. Where they are wanting, there is division, selfishness, hatred, enmity, and death…Literature makes our life natural and free…it civilises the self.”
After independence, India inherited a fractured land and a divided people. Partition was the cost the country paid for independence. A number of progressive poets voiced their opposition to Partition, but their hearts were heavy. History, after the first world war, had once again borne witness to the fact that the nation had taken precedence over solidarity. Ahmad Faraz, a poet who had opted for Pakistan, wrote in despair: ‘Ab kis ka jashn manaate ho/Us desh ka jo taqseem hua/Us desh ka geet sunaate ho/Jo toot ke hi tasleem hua’. [What are you celebrating, a country which was divided to create Pakistan?].
Partition and independence were the twin faces of August 1947 in India. The miracle is that a democratic constitution was written amidst the debris of destroyed homes, work places and places of worship. It was democratic despite massacres and frayed hopes that independence would herald a new era. The task the constitution makers had on their hands was a stupendous one. Indians spoke different languages, practiced distinctive rituals, possessed unique world views, and had diverse expectations of politics. A newly independent India strained at the seams with diversity and difference, both of which can prove troublesome categories. People were strangers to each other. And in many parts of the country, democracy was a stranger to them. Independence had come along with bloodshed and massacres, social hierarchies were left intact, elites continued to hold themselves above the rest of the people, and discrimination on grounds of religion and caste ran rife.
Once again progressive poets, realising their responsibility to create a harmonious India, wrote inspiring lyrics that transcended religious boundaries to focus on commonalities. In 1960, in the famous film Barsaat Ki Raat directed by P.L Santoshi, Sahir Ludhianvi wrote the lyrics of a quawali ‘yeh ishq ishq hai ishq ishq’. The high point of the lyric were the lines ‘Ishaq azaad hai Hindu na Musalman hai Ishq/ aap hi dharam hai and aap hi imaan hai Ishq’ (Love is free, neither Hindu nor Muslim, it is in itself dharma and belief). And for a 1961 film, B.R Chopra’s Dharamputra, Sahir wrote: ‘Kaabe mein rahon ya kashi mein, nisbat to usiki baat se hai, tum ram kaho, yah Rahim kaho, maqsad to usiki zaat se hai’ (Whether you live in Kaaba or Kashi you are concerned with one God, whether you call him Ram or Rahim).

The constitution as a social contract
The constitution is a social contract that establishes a relationship between citizens and the state. It also establishes a relationship between citizens. A people who had been divided along the lines of politicised religion had to accept each other as members of a democratic political community constituted by the constitution. They were given an alternative to living in claustrophobic caste or religious communities, to know what cosmopolitanism, solidarity and friendship meant.
India was introduced to new norms enshrined in the preamble of the constitution and, above all, to the recognition of the importance of ‘we the people’ i.e. popular sovereignty. We now owed obligations not only to the people we had elected into power, but also obligations to each other as fellow citizens. Thus, a political community based on fidelity to the constitution was born which, despite a rocky biography in the years since independence, has been consolidated through political action and through the development of solidarity.
The foundations of this community had been laid during the freedom struggle by leaders, cadres, literature and progressive writers and poets. Poet Brij Narain Chakbast (1882-1926) spoke of the ability of a subject people to rise in unity against the power of the colonial state: ‘Yeh Khaak e Hind se paide hain josh ke aasar/Himalaya se uthe jaise abr-e-daryabaar.’ The coming together of people in a massive struggle for independence could have proved fragile, if a democratic constitution had not built on the anti-colonial project to create a project of solidarity
Solidarity is built upon civic mindedness, and good will towards fellow citizens. Democratic institutions will collapse if these two attributes are overtaken by racial and religious intolerance. Democracy is not only dependent on institutions, it is dependent on the relationship between citizens. And whether they see the political community as not only meant for the majority group but also their willingness to accept others as equals and as worthy of civil behaviour. Any deviation from or violation of these norms harm democracy and secularism.
Though Congress leaders used the term secularism in the pre-independence period often, oddly enough the concept was never spelt out or elaborated as a principle of state policy in the Constituent Assembly. Nor was it included in the preamble until 1976, vide the 42nd Amendment. Yet, commitment to secularism was visible throughout the debates in the Constituent Assembly.
On October 17, 1949, during discussions on the wording of the preamble, H.V. Kamath moved an amendment that it should begin with the phrase ‘In the name of God’. Similar amendments were moved by Shibban Lal Saxena and Pandit Mohan Malviya. Other members objected, and a majority of the members expressed their conviction that religion was a matter of individual choice and not the signpost of a collective..
Pandit Hriday Nath Kunzru regretfully stated that a matter concerning our innermost and sacred feelings have been brought into the arena of discussion. It would have been far more consistent with our beliefs that we should not impose our feelings on others, and that the collective view should not have been forced on others. “We invoke the name of God, but I make bold to say that while we do so, we are showing a narrow sectarian spirit, which is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.”
The amendment moved by Mr Kamath was defeated. Members stressed on the need to curtail religion in the public sphere in the interests of nation building, of democracy and of rights. On November 23, 1948, K.M Munshi emphasised that religion must be restricted to spheres which legitimately appertain to religion. The rest of life must be regulated, unified and modified in order to build a strong and consolidated nation.
On December 2, 1948, Dr Ambedkar asked for strict control over religion. Religious conceptions in this country, he said, are so vast that they cover every aspect of life from birth to death. We should strive to limit the definition of religion so that it does not extend beyond beliefs and rituals of ceremonies. In sum, the role of religion in public affairs was sought to be depoliticised, and religion privatised, so that the public sphere and state policy could be governed by secular or non-religious politics. This was the constitution that the people of India gave to themselves – a product of mass struggle, political compromises, idealism and commitment to every citizen.
The adoption of a constitution – whose preamble majorly reflected the demands of the freedom movement – realised dreams and longings that had been stirred by poetry, fiery speeches of revolution, political protests and by the selfless devotion of outstanding men and women to the country. The day the constitution was promulgated on January 26, 1950, was a day of great joy and fulfilment.
Over the years, perhaps, the constitution began to be taken, by succeeding generations, for granted except as a document that has been interpreted and reinterpreted by the courts. I wonder how many Indians recognise that the constitution is also political document. The preamble embodies the ideals of a generation that fought for independence for generations that were to follow. What else were people fighting for if they were not fighting against the might of the colonial power for independence.
Today, we should re-discover that moment of excitement and joy when India got her own constitution. We need to rediscover that sense of pride that our constitution has been fought for by millions of people, for the fact that the constitution which embodied the commitment of the national movement is considered to be one of the finest in the world. There is nothing a people cannot do when they come together in a community that transcends caste, regional and religious affiliations. A people who unite in the associational space of the political community have great power. That is why so-called leaders, and political parties aspiring to power, try to divide people along the lines of religious affiliation.
Yet, the political community, relatively autonomous of the rites of procedural politics, and characterised by deliberation and dialogue reiterates a truth that is often overlooked by legal jurists. A society cannot be held together only by the dry bones of law. Unless people relate to each other with sympathy because they are fellow citizens, and who inhabit a community of fate, legal ties can prove brittle, laws can be subverted, corrupted and ignored.
Political communities should be able to reach out and connect with each other on the basis of poetic sympathy and solidarity. Otherwise, we will continue to live in the Hobbesian pre-political state of potential war against others. And we will continue to ask ourselves, did not we not learn anything from history?
Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.

Courtesy: The Wire

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