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Sunday, February 16, 2020

The charter of liberation

On the brink of the 70th year of the Republic, a reaffirmation of the radical message of the Constitution

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: December 29, 2019 8:00:05 am
(From left to right) Members of the Constituent Assembly including Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Jairamdas Daulatram signing copies of the Constitution.

Indian citizens recently clothed themselves in collective readings of the Preamble to the Constitution of India. Like a mantra, the recitation of 85 words suddenly acquired power. Even with its more controversial amendments in 1973, the Preamble to the Indian Constitution is one of the pithiest. It is worth reading Preambles to other constitutions collected in the Oxford Constitutions of the World to recognise the clarity and radicalness of what India was attempting. For those who want to convert India into a civilisational state, just contrast the Preamble to India’s Constitution with that of the Chinese constitution, and you will be cured of delusions. The Indian Preamble is spare and elegant because it is, somewhat unusually for preambles, not burdened with God, history or identity. Its pulsating heart and unredeemed promise is liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. This is not because God and history are not important. But it is because our Constitution liberates us to imagine them in whichever way we choose.

But the reading of the Preamble was not just a statement of citizens’ rights. It was also, in some ways, about a practice of reading. In the 70th year of our Republic, in the 150th year of Gandhi’s birth anniversary, 2020 should be the year to read the entire range of the political thinking that made India: from Mahatma Gandhi to BR Ambedkar, from Sri Aurobindo to Periyar, from KM Munshi to Sarojini Naidu, and so many others who constituted that extraordinary public sphere that shaped the backdrop to modern India. If nothing else, they will be an antidote to an authoritarian culture whose most corrosive achievement is to make us superficial, enraged and cynical all at once.

The original text of the Preamble.

But one of the tragedies of our age is that even practices of reading have devolved into simple declarations of partisanship or group identity. Whose side will a book take? Which quotation from which figure can be deployed as a bludgeon against opponents? Reading of political thought is no longer the refuge from the weaponisation of words, a place for hard-won understanding. It has also become a wilful act of simplification, dripping with the lazy condescension of posterity. The men and women who shaped our republic were trying to imagine their way through an uncertain and complex world. They were fighting on many fronts. Some are often right on the principles, but mistaken in particular historical judgments they make. Some measure particular men and situations with insight, only to flounder on the principles at stake. Some, like Ambedkar, have the crystal clarity that comes not only from brilliance, but also from political marginality: he does not have to take anyone’s side. Some are doing the hard work of reconciling their principles with a recalcitrant world, and with others whom they want to carry along, even in the face of disagreement. Such a vibrant and divergent canon of political thought is meant to be something you think with, not something you deploy as convenient. But this canon, which was meant to liberate us, has now become a warring minefield.

It is in this context that reading the Preamble was refreshing. It was an escape from the narcissism of identity and partisanship that characterises all reading now. The Preamble has a context, of 1949, and, more controversially, of 1973. But it is crafted in a way that deliberately transcends context, and rises above a mean partisanship.

Like a stotra, the Preamble lets you concentrate on the basics: liberty for what? Equality of what? And fraternity between whom? And, the answers to the three are mutually supportive: one concept cannot be operational without the other.

The other thing you notice quickly, apart from the references to justice and the unity of the nation is the dignity of the individual. This is a more radical idea than we think, in the Indian context. Our discourse on communal amity in these troubled times, understandably, takes recourse to the idea of solidarity between groups, across identities. But the Preamble was referring to something more radical: the unity of the nation is not simply the solidarity of groups. It suggests that a real and deeper unity is possible only when the dignity of every individual is assured. It is a way of saying, if individual dignity is honoured, the nation has nothing to fear.

So the Preamble was a charter of liberation. It has structure, but one that enables forward movement. My last reading recommendation for the year is not a book, but the single most brilliant article I read all year. This is by Mukund Lath, ‘Identity Through Necessary Change: Thinking About Raag Bhava’, published in The Journal of World Philosophies (2018) and available online, with an introduction by David Shulman. It is a riveting essay on Indian classical music. But it is also a great contribution to Indian thought. It develops the radical idea that even identity is based on and rooted in change, not in stability and perpetuity. Our identity wars are, amongst other things, drowning out the music of this civilisation. But its connection to the Preamble is this: like the raga, the Constitution gives us a framework where we can, like artists, develop our individuality. We do not have to march to the same drum-beat of the powers that be that imprison and divide us in the name of our own civilisation.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is contributing editor at The Indian Express, New Delhi

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