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Why the Constitution matters for children

Beyond the drudgery of civics lessons in school, books and public rallies can act as tools to raise politically conscious young citizens

Illustrations by Tapas Guha from Subhadra Sen Gupta’s book
Illustrations by Tapas Guha from Subhadra Sen Gupta’s book (Photo courtesy: Puffin Books)

Not many of us have fond memories of civics lessons in school. It’s probably not the most exciting class still for schoolgoing children, one where they are required to memorize fundamental rights and duties by rote. However, as the country rises up against the Citizenship (Amendment)Act (CAA) and public discourse is replete with references to secular values and constitutional principles, it’s more important than ever to educate children about the founding document of the Indian republic. 

In the last few weeks, children of all ages have appeared alongside grown-ups at public rallies in different Indian cities. At a recent meeting in Bengaluru, activist Irom Sharmila came with her twin daughters, who, at less than a year old, turned out to be the youngest attendees. There were boys and girls across ages at gatherings in Mumbai and Delhi, too, as the children’s writing community—including illustrators, parents, editors and teachers—assembled to read the Preamble to the Constitution. 

Illustrations by Tapas Guha from Subhadra Sen Gupta’s book.
Illustrations by Tapas Guha from Subhadra Sen Gupta’s book. (Photo courtesy: Puffin Books)

“We don’t want to force-feed our children with anti-CAA content but don’t want to shield them from what’s happening around them either," says Kripa Bhatia, an illustrator and mother of two from Mumbai. Earlier this month, Bhatia, writer-illustrator Deepa Balsavar and a few others gathered to read from the late judge Leila Seth’s classic book, We, The Children Of India: The Preamble To Our Constitution, illustrated by the late Bindia Thapar. “The idea was to make children aware of their rights," says Bhatia.

At the location—Bandra Fort—the police gave them a tricky time. Since no loudspeakers were involved, the group was told it would not need any permission to hold the reading. However, on the day, Bhatia and Balsavar had to run around meeting the authorities and convincing them to let them go ahead with the event. In the end, it took place as planned, but the police hung around all through, taking photographs.

A large banner was created by Balsavar, depicting children from different communities holding hands. She believes children, too, can be made to feel that they have a stake in society if they are taken to attend such protest rallies. 

In Bengaluru, around 27 people gathered to read from Seth’s book in English, Hindi and Kannada translations at a children’s park. Since Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was in force at the time, preventing public assembly of groups bigger than four people, the group stayed carefully low key. “By the end, some had tears in their eyes, each word we read out gave us goosebumps as their weight settled on us," says children’s writer Bijal Vachharajani. 

The Delhi reading was pitched differently. “We didn’t actually do it for children—though we are now trying to do an event for children and some people are volunteering to read and do children’s activities at Shaheen Bagh (a site of continuing protest in Delhi)," says Sayoni Basu, publisher of Duckbill Books, based in Delhi. The event was essentially an expression of solidarity by the children’s publishing community. It was done at Gate 7 of Jamia Millia Islamia, outside the destroyed library, where the students are organizing daily readings. “We read the Preamble in English and Hindi, and other poems and story extracts for kids in English, Urdu, Hindi and Bengali. Since we had decided to do this on (19th century social reformer) Savitribai Phule’s birthday, an extract from a short biography of hers was also read." The group now wants to do another reading at a nice fusty “establishment" place, though it is yet to fix a venue.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, a publisher of children’s literature who worked with Seth on her book, remembers the project as being close to the late writer’s heart. “She was particularly keen to do it for her young grandchildren," she says.

In 2010, when the book came out, questions of inclusivity and diversity weren’t talked about as widely as they are now. But Seth was mindful of including “children in different situations", Shome Ghosh says. In one illustration, Thapar drew a child with a crutch. There are others dressed in a range of attires from different communities and social backgrounds. The final touches to the narrative were given by Vikram Seth, Leila Seth’s writer son, before the book assumed its current form. 

A new and expanded update on the Constitution for children comes from Subhadra Sen Gupta, in a book illustrated by Tapas Guha. Lucidly narrated, it is a brief history of the coming together of the Constitution, thanks to the valiant efforts of our founding fathers and mothers. Not only does it go into the specific circumstances of the formation of the constituent assembly, it also dwells closely on the key concepts of secularism, republicanism, sovereignty and democracy. Sen Gupta presents her arguments using simple examples and analogies; and the loftiest ideas become alive and easily accessible. While being a valuable addition to books for children, this is also a useful reference for adults—an incentive to overcome their jaded world-weariness and look around with younger and fresher eyes. 

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