The book of the people
As the Constitution turns 70, a crop of new books attest to the growing relevance of India’s founding document in the nation’s public life
On 26 January 1950, India’s Constitution came into effect—drafted by B.R. Ambedkar among others—as the foundational text of its polity. It’s hard to tell if the makers of the modern nation state anticipated the urgency of the document 70 years on. As public protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) intensify, the Constitution is being repeatedly invoked all across the country. The Preamble is being read out in different languages at gatherings, the sanctity of its first principles is being upheld as protection against the CAA and NRC. Yet, the Constitution was—and still is—far from a perfect entity, as a recent crop of books attest.
Drafted over three years, between 1946-49, it ran into glitches soon after it came into effect. As Tripurdaman Singh’s forthcoming book Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story Of The First Amendment To The Constitution Of India shows, the first amendment to the Constitution, passed amid tremendous political opposition in 1951, affected freedom of speech, caste-based reservation and the zamindari system, among others. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and an unflinching supporter of the liberal values of the Constitution, was forced to take a step back and exercise his executive privileges, keeping the ground realities in mind. Singh’s analysis of the events that led to this radical turnaround makes for compelling reading.
In another fascinating book, Ambedkar’s Preamble: A Secret History Of The Constitution Of India, Aakash Singh Rathore celebrates Ambedkar’s pioneering role as chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution, arguing that the key concepts of the Preamble owe more to the Dalit leader than we give him credit for. His study acknowledges the centrality of the Ambedkarite legacy to the Preamble, which defines the core values of the Indian state.
In a perceptive review of Madhav Khosla’s book, India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution Of A Most Surprising Democracy, Shruti Rajagopalan draws a parallel between the mass protests against the CAA and NRC and the principles that form the bedrock of the Constitution, which is a symbolic presence in these gatherings. Khosla, she argues, isn’t so much interested in historical analysis as in seeing the persistence of an idea of India, as well as an idea of being Indian, which has lingered into the 21st century.
These are values that are hammered into us since school, as we learn about fundamental rights and duties by rote, and some of us are now called upon to invoke them as we have difficult conversations with family and friends about the legitimacy of the CAA and NRC. This week’s cover story, “Talking Politics With The Parents" outlines the challenges involved in these dialogues and some silver linings.
The companion piece looks at the situation from the other end: where elders are trying to instil the values of the Constitution in the young. From the late legal expert Leila Seth’s classic book for children on the Preamble (illustrated by Bindia Thapar), now 10 years old, to writer Subhadra Sen Gupta and illustrator Tapas Guha’s collaboration in their new book, The Constitution Of India For Children, there are invaluable resources that can help foster a generation of astute, civic-minded and self-aware young citizens who can further the vision of the founding parents of the nation. And, of course, a great many adults would benefit, too, from reading these books and looking at the present without prejudice.