India’s Constitution is a famously lengthy and unwieldy document, with 448 Articles, 25 Parts, 12 Schedules and 5 Appendices in it, at present. It was inspired by the Constitutions, written and unwritten, of at least 10 different countries; Dr. Ambedkar, the head of the Committee that drafted the Constitution, quipped that it was framed after “ransacking all known constitutions of the world”.
The fact that it has been amended 103 times, in 70 years at once, suggests that it governs the largest democracy in the world, and also, that it accommodates a wide diversity of claims on India’s material and moral resources.
This is the document that is celebrated in India every year on the 26th of January, although it seems like a mere formality. Technically, 26th January isn’t even the anniversary of the formal adoption of the Constitution, more like the anniversary of INC’s 1930 Lahore resolution, under the stewardship of a young JL Nehru, for Purna Swaraj or complete independence – an upgrade from the milder demand for a Dominion of Great Britain that ‘moderate’ Indian nationalists had been making till then.
So when we celebrate Republic Day, we celebrate either complete independence or the enactment of the country’s supreme law, or both, depending on how one sees it. Our Constitution asks the government to protect cows, as well as ensure equal pay for equal work for men and women. There has decidedly been a lot more vim and vigour in implementing the former than the latter.
Given the chaos that the Constitution embodies, it might seem that there is no rhyme or reason to it.
Why would, what seems like a drab legal document, unite so many people, from so many walks of life, in its vigorous defence, every time there is an attack on it? One reason, perhaps among many, is that there is poetry in the Preamble to the Constitution of India. Why else would the spontaneous hundreds of thousands across India recite it in protests against the violent and immoral CAA? This Preamble was, like the rest of the original Constitution, enacted and adopted on the 26th of November, 1949. It very pithily summarises what India means, and what it means to be an Indian.
It starts with “We, The People of India”, the entity it draws authority and legitimacy from. It pronounces India as a “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic”. Though the order of the words might not be of any particular significance (unknown to me at least, would be happy to be corrected), in moments of poetry, it might. So, those among us, the people of India, who are out on the streets to defend their beloved Constitution today, might draw our attention to the fact that “secular” and “democratic” precede “republic” in the Preamble’s characterisation of India.
In fact, according to the Preamble, India is a very qualified republic. It is secular before it is a democracy, and a democracy before it is a republic; India is not just a state that doesn’t have a hereditary head, but one the head of which is elected and legitimised by “we, the people”, who necessarily form a secular body politic.
Most postcolonial states are republics, but many of them have succumbed to social and ethnic divisions engineered by European colonials and devolved into states run by repressive authoritarian regimes, unaccountable to the people they govern. Something similar was attempted in India as well – the horrors of partition and religious riots, casteist and communal violence in fits and starts are always with us.
Our divisions are always at best peripheral to our consciousness, never completely eradicated. The national project of forging together a “unified” citizenry continues even today. The insight given by Dalit scholar, Suraj Yengde, in his highly-acclaimed and highly recommended book Caste Matters might help provide some context to this :
“India is not yet a nation. It is still in an improvisational mode like a jazz band that needs to perform repeatedly together in order to uplift every voice in the chorus…. However, beyond the physicality of the nation-state, India is a very loosely knit community. Barring its Constitution, nothing ties its citizens to each other. Groupism combined with casteism produces feelings of hostility among different groups.”
(p. 17, Caste Matters, S Yengde)
Although the book gives a searing examination to the regressive, exploitative and violent caste system that pervades Indian social structures and transactions, and argues that caste is a fundamental factor behind all of India’s ills, it also tries to provide a global picture of India’s society and brings to sharp relief the insecurities of the elite and privileged who inhabit it, including those who are Dalit.
At a time when a critical mass of Indian citizenry understands divisions better than unities, this insight is important. We have been trying to convince ourselves that how the educated and privileged elite navigate spaces of cultural diversity in India, through superficial exchanges of cultural artefacts is what binds us together.
While this has helped romanticise the concept of India, it has only moved us further away from the reality that we, as groups, are always trying to dominate one another, and are scared of being dominated by the “other”. A sentiment of intercultural xenophobia, and the sense that “outsiders” are “taking over” still leads to violence against thousands of hapless people in many parts of the country.
Clearly, very little intercultural interaction takes place or is approved of by local communities on the ground.
In that sense, the aforementioned ordering of words is a testament to the strength of India’s democracy. The experiment of India’s democracy, universal adult franchise at a nascent stage, when the country had very little in terms of human capital, was one of the boldest political moves in human history – one which has inspired hope in hopelessness, camaraderie amid differences and disparities, and philosophy and poetry amid the mundane. One which has marked India out as a beacon of democracy, the “largest democracy” in the world, a symbol of hope amid gloom.
It is this spirit that we celebrate every Republic Day. Depending on your point of view, the choice of Chief Guest for our Republic Day celebrations this year could be viewed as either imaginative or its opposite. Jair Bolsonaro, the authoritarian far-right populist and a former Captain in the Brazilian Army, who was elected to the office of the President of Brazil in 2018, has made it clear that he favours the welfare of corporate lobbyists, over concerns like rights of indigenous forest communities, protection of the Amazon biodiversity hotspots or worker rights.
He has been calling for clearing of large parts of the Amazon rainforest, so that his corporate mining pals could extract the ‘riches’ underneath the ground, to enrich themselves, for a long time. Last year, the fires that ravaged large parts of Amazon and which were called “extraordinarily concerning” by the chief of United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), appeared to have started rather mysteriously.
Bolsonaro dismissed concerns about a burning Amazon later in a speech to the UN General Assembly, and justified his intention to hand over Amazon land to corporate interests, and to stop indigenous communities from “living like cavemen”. He is racist who has advocated for the genocide of indigenous communities in the past.
He is also a homophobe and a misogynist, and a believer in dictatorship and fascist violence, which is exactly what he is allowing, it is alleged, to be unleashed on indigenous communities.
Given all that, the fact that he has decided to create an “Amazon Council” to help protect the Amazon forests, in the face of intense global criticism, over his terrible handling of the Amazon fires, shows that protesting perhaps works. At a time when the entire country has erupted in protests over the avalanche of injustice that has befallen its people – ranging from the abrogation of Article 370 to historically high unemployment levels to the viciously discriminatory CAA, to a fear psychosis, surrounding an all-India NRC – one can take some heart from the fact that India’s chief guest on Republic Day, who is as much of an anti-democrat as the current Hindu nationalist dispensation in New Delhi, is coming to India having been forced to beat a mild retreat from his aggressive stance on the Amazon.
He is supposed to come to India to strengthen bonds between his country and ours, both within the BRICS framework and outside of it, and also to help his business friends fish for investment opportunities in India. This comes at a time when there are attacks on media independence in Brazil. Ex-pat American investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, famous for bringing the phenomenon that is Edward Snowden and his work on exposing the overreach of the American global surveillance machinery to us, is now facing ludicrous charges of “cybercrime”.
In more decent times, such charges would have been a stillborn, risible thing, but today, the absurd is reality, when fiction like “urban Naxal” is used to smear and arrest intellectuals, human rights activists and dissidents, or when mainstream media is an “enemy of the people”.
One wonders if Bolsonaro might have taken a lesson or two from Modi, on eroding press freedom, in which India came a stellar 140th, out of 180 countries, last year, while Bolsonaro’s country was still lagging at 105. But there is no need for Jair to feel disheartened. Brazil and India are ranked the same on the Corruption Perceptions Index, at 80. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index finds Brazil and India neck-and-neck in being “flawed democracies” – the former at 52, and the latter at 51.
In the Gender Gap Index, again, India is far ahead of Brazil, placed at 112, with the latter at 92. It will take an enormous amount of effort to top an epidemic of acid attacks, female foeticide/infanticide, dowry and “honour” murders. On the human development front as well, Brazil is far behind India, coming in at a dismal 79 on the 2019 HDI, whereas India remains a shining example of development at 129. Well, certainly the wealth of our billionaires is seeing growth rates that our GDP figures can only long for. Here again, Brazil is well behind India. With Jair around, and with mentorship from India, inequality in Brazil could receive a shot in the arm.
There is another thing that might be of interest here. The Brazilian Constitution has mentioned “God” in its Preamble, thus bringing the matters pertaining to the supernatural directly into the affairs of the state. Bolsonaro invokes “God” in some of his most divisive and aggressive speeches, and he has been enabled by the Preamble to his Constitution.
Our Preamble clearly mentions that India is secular. However, secularism in state policy is well nigh dead today, with the state taking a direct interest in divisive issues, like the Ram Mandir movement and more importantly, in formulating and violently imposing on the citizens a flagrantly discriminatory, anti-Muslim law like the CAA.
The Preamble doesn’t mention anything about the divine, but we have witnessed the 17th Lok Sabha swear itself in with militant chants of “Jai Shri Ram”, also used as a war cry by Muslim-lynchers all across the country. Both the states are, therefore, de facto run by politico-religious supremacist ideologies, regardless of how their individual Constitutions behoove them to act, to the detriment of their true interests.
Inviting Bolsonaro to India to preside over its Republic Day celebrations is less about coming together of the two countries, and more about the coming together of far-right ideologies that hold in two different contexts. The far-right the world over seems to be coalescing, seeking ideological synergies on a plinth of shared Islamophobia. This was already visible within the European far-right for years, where anti-Muslim, anti-immigration European parties frequently met to exchange notes on how to make their ideas more appealing.
Although Europeans have by and large rejected their extremist message, there is a sense of apathy towards the injustices meted out to Muslims by state and non-state actors. The anti-Muslim state is providing a breeding ground for an anomie, that is slowly but surely infecting the citizen. It is in this global context that the protests on Indian streets and subsequent state terrorism against its own Muslim citizens assume special significance.
Although Bolsonaro is not (yet) a vocal Islamophobe, one wouldn’t put it past him to enthusiastically cheer on the violent exclusion of the little people from the commons, given that is exactly the kind of treatment he advocates for indigenous peoples in his own country. This Republic Day, we are going to have to resignedly accept a trampling of our democratic values, and resolve to fight for their restoration.
To end this essay, and to aid reflection in troubled times for our Constitution, I would like to quote Dr. Ambedkar himself, “I feel that it [the Constitution] is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peacetime and in wartime. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was Vile” (CAD; Vol.VII; page 44).