The Constitution for the first time is being talked about by unlettered homemakers and the homeless poor
Constitutional fathers who drafted the Indian Constitution would have been gratified to see the younger generation embrace the values that they held so dear. A short history of the last 90 years
What is remarkable about these protests that are still in full swing as I write, is that it is the Republic and its symbols, the Constitution, the Flag and the National Anthem, that have become its rallying cry 90 years ago on January 26, 1930.
In city maidans, and town mohallas, and village chaupals, hundreds of thousands of Indian women and men and children, gathered in great anticipation. They were answering the call given by the Indian National Congress, which had at its famous Lahore session in December 1929, presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru, just a few weeks ago, declared Complete Independence from the British as its goal. It had also decided to launch a country-wide Civil Disobedience Movement to achieve that objective. As the first move in that direction, an Independence Pledge was drafted by Gandhiji and people were asked to come together on 26th January, hold public meetings, read out the pledge in local languages and hoist the national flag, which they enthusiastically did. Since then, 26th January was observed every year as Independence Day.
In 1947, India won her much-awaited Independence from colonial rule, on 15th August, and hence 15th August now became Independence Day. But 26th January was a hallowed date in the hearts of the Indian people. So, when the time came for “We the people” to “give ourselves” the Constitution, the date on which it was formally adopted was 26th January 1950, even though it had been finalised and signed two months earlier on 26 November 1949.
Independence Day now became Republic day, emphasising the link between the democratic and republican ideals of the struggle for freedom and their fruition in the Constitution of India. In a formal sense, Purna Swaraj was attained only on 26th January 1950, when the Constitution came into force, because till then we were ruled by the Independence of India Act passed by the British Parliament.
The rebublican constitution we adopted constituted India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic rebublic and promised justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity. In the last seventy years, governments and the people of India, in their own imperfect ways, with many ups and downs, have functioned with some reference to the principles laid down at the time of the founding of the Republic. The judiciary, too, though not always consistently, helped strengthen these foundations, especially with its stand on the basic structure of the Constitution being inviolate.
Despite Emergency, and because of the strong reaction to it among the people who rejected the assault on democracy and civil liberties, the Republic did not seem to be in danger. There was faith that popular movements would impact and synchronise with public policies and legislative interventions to deepen democracy. And for a while it seemed to be true.
The people’s campaign for Right to Information culminated in the enactment of a legislation as advanced as any in the world. Similar was the case with the struggles around right to work, right to education, rights of children, tribals and forest-dwellers and the danger to the environment
This trajectory of the republic, not linear, imperfect, with twists and turns, but broadly staying the course, began to falter from the middle of the second decade of the present century. The new political dispensation that came into power in 2014 with the promise of “achhe din” had ideological underpinnings that ran contrary to the foundational values of the republic.
Inspired and guided by an organisation founded 95 years ago to work towards the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra, the BJP-led Government turned a blind eye to open violation of the secular principle of the Constitution by campaigns accusing Muslims of Love Jihad, asking for their Ghar Wapsi, and even worse, the spate of lynchings which began in September 2015 with the murder of Akhlaq Khan by a mob on the charge of storing beef in a village not far from Delhi and spread to many parts of the country.
Chief Ministers of states vied with each other to protect cows, while Muslim dairy farmers were killed while ferrying their cows on the charge that they were taking them for slaughter. Local police connived by filing cases against the victims and shielding the perpetrators.
The growing unpopularity of the regime due to its disastrous economic policies embodied in demonetisation, the hasty and poorly thought out imposition of GST and rising unemployment raised hopes that some respite was possible via the general elections in May 2019.
But the Pulwama terrorist attack on CRPF jawans in Kashmir followed by the so-called surgical strike in Balakot enabled the BJP to cash in on the jingoist sentiment with its well-oiled vote-catching party machine and return to power, dashing all hopes of a reprieve to the republic.
Narendra Modi returned as Prime Minister but with a difference. The party president Amit Shah now joined the government as Home Minister, inaugurating a new stage in the movement towards fulfilling the Hindutva agenda. It first passed a law ostensibly for protecting Muslim women, but in effect criminalising Triple Talaq, disregarding opposition from many quarters.
On 5th August, the most audacious step of abolishing Article 370 that was the basis of Kashmir’s accesion to India, demoting and dividing the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, separating Ladakh, was taken. Three former Chief Ministers, of whom two had beeen members of the Union Government, were arrested, along with thousands of others, internet and mobile phones shut down, curfew clamped in large parts, all in the name of preventing terrorist attacks. For the first time, even Friday prayers were not allowed in the main Masjid. Indian members of parliament were not allowed to go to the valley.
In early November, came the much-awaited judgenment on the Ayodhya issue, when the Supreme Court ruled that the site of the demolished Babri Masjid be given to Hindus to build a Ram Mandir, a decision many believed was influenced by Hindu majoritarian sentiment and gave the impression of rewarding vandalism.
The final blow came in December 2019. The Home Minister personally steered the Controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill through both houses of parliament in record time, one after the other, and also announced that it was a precursor to a nationwide NRC. The Act introduced religion as a qualification for citizenship, for illegal migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but excluded Muslms from the list of potential citizens. The NRC would require all residents to furnish proof of citizenship or face disqualification.
This proved to be the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. This was seen as a grievous blow to the Constitution, violative of its basic values, an assault on the Muslim minority and the poor. Protests began to appear, first among students, as in the Jamia Millia University in Delhi, and when Jamia students were brutally attacked by the police, these spread rapidly to other campuses, such as AMU, and when these too were attaacked by the police, anger spilled over and thousands took to the streets all over the country. In retaliation, police beat up and detained protestors, entered homes and destroyed private property, and even resorted to firing in some instances.
The hardest hit was the largest Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where the CM vowed revenge on protestors, and over 20 people, mostly poor Muslim males, died as a result of the firing. Undeterred, protestors came out in hundreds of thousands in Hyderabad, Mangaluru, Bengaluru, Kerala, Mumbai and many smaller towns in Maharashtra, in Kolkata, led by the Chief Minister herself, in Assam and other states in the Nort-east in a big way, in many places in Bihar, and other states. Indefinite sit-ins, some of them lasting a month, as in Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, especially by women from low-income and low-education backgrounds who had never participated in protests or even left their homes before showed how strong the feeling was.
What is remarkable about this protest movement that is still in full swing as I write, is that it is the Republic and its symbols, the Constitution and the Flag and the National Anthem, that have become its rallying cry. Young and old, women and men, and particularly the women and the youth, read out the Preamble to the Constitution in mass meetings, protestors often carry copies of the Constitution and wave them, carry national flags, and sing the national anthem in unison. They carry portraits of Gandhi, the father of the nation, and of Ambedkar, who headed the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, and of other heroes of the freedom struggle, Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqullah and Bismil.
This is the first time since its adoption that the Constitution has become a people’s document, its contents talked about in the streets, by unlettered homemakers and homeless poor. The founders of the Republic, if they could witness the present moment, would doubtless be gratified that its sacred book has finally reached those for whom it was intended, those whom it made into citizens of the Republic, and who are now reclaiming it with all their might from those who seek to usurp it. The age-old battle between David and Goliath is on.
(Mridula Mukherjee taught History at JNU and was Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)