In the summer of 1947, an ancient civilization took its first steps towards becoming a modern nation-state. The stabbing wound left millions on both sides of the newly formed countries dead and bitter. No sooner was the flag of this nascent nation hoisted from the ramparts of Red Fort did begin the process of transforming India into a republic while keeping intact—the idea of India.
Our founding fathers, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azaad, B.R Ambedkar and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, had the difficult task of steering a new nation in a direction that would ensure that this great ancient civilization was not destroyed by the forces of casteism, sectarianism, and totalitarianism.
The constitution of India that came into force on 26th January 1950 ensured that every time the country seemed to succumb to religious hatred, divisive tendencies or caste-based violence, the constitution stood guard to ward off any blow that was targeted at the idea of India.
The idea is almost five millennia-old, and I first understood about it from the works of Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore. Today, the idea of India survives, unlike other ancient civilizations like Greece or Mesopotamia. Modern India was shaped by it. On reading the constitution, we realize that the idea of India is inclusive where the rule of law is supreme, and no one is above the law.
Every caste, religion, language, the region is equal—this was a change for a historically unequal society. And India even adopted universal suffrage, where every Indian above the age of 18 had the right to vote much before the west. B.R. Ambedkar said, “In politics, we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, because of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”
Moreover, B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the constitution, was, as a child not even allowed to sit in the class. Even his touch was considered ‘impure’, and yet, he went on to become a proponent of equality advocating that every Indian irrespective of caste, creed, religion or sex is equal.
This was the modern, secular democratic India that our founding fathers envisioned. The idea of new India superimposed the old: a new nation accepted the diversity of its people, for the people, by the people and in support of their dreams and hopes. Jawaharlal Nehru envisioned a mixed economy with scientific temper along with equality of opportunity.
India’s secularism was based on showing respect to all faiths—non-interference of religion by keeping it a private affair and equal opportunities to all religions. Tolerance and acceptance of every faith and religion was a pre-condition for a functional democracy. He urged the people to believe in themselves and in their capacity to build a nation.
Even at the height of power, he maintained democracy through a constitution based on civil liberties, a government elected by universal adult suffrage, free and fair elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary. He wanted to leave behind a country that could be properly governed by the people at every level beginning from the Panchayats. He believed in the power of the people. In 1960, he declared, “In India today, any reversal of democratic methods might lead to disruption and violence.”
Throughout the first few decades, there was much uncertainty whether this newly constituted modern democratic India that was once made up of hundreds of kingdoms and communities would survive, but it did, even when few other countries fell apart.
The Indian identity remains complex, we continue to speak different languages, religion that was once thought to remain in the realm of the private is now in public, we are yet to move towards a uniform civil code, foods which are banned in one state continue to be delicacies in the others, we continue to dispute over water and blame each other for causing smog and making air unbreathable, we have moral police telling women how to dress and when to marry, casteism is yet to be completely eradicated, inequality plagues and there is educated unemployment us, but then, every time we shrug off any blame. We are like this only.
We remain a billion strong country that is at the moment facing the challenges of economic slowdown and agitations over the newly drafted Citizenship Amendment Bill only heightened by the lack of employment, access to education, clean drinking water, increasing pollution, and ever-escalating violence targeted towards women, hate crimes and lynching and a weakening rupee.
The task ahead seems to be a gigantic one, and democracy needs to be strengthened. This republic day, it time we take the pledge to look ahead and build a nation of aspirations, dreams, and opportunities that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the words of the Prime Minister,
“As we move towards a new India, we have to ensure that no person, no region is left behind.”