“So many of the debates we see in public life today are echoes of the questions discussed in the Constituent Assembly,” says Shruti V, the founder of The Equals Project, an initiative that helps people better understand the Constitution and their relationship with it. A graduate of the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, Shruti, adds, “Debates around religion, language, caste, the relationship between the centre and the state dominated the halls of the Assembly, and those fault lines remain in India of 2021.” Through the posts on their Instagram page, she hopes to shine light on the “people, divides and debates that underpinned our Constitution”; and emphasise the idea of India as a negotiated nation.
At a time when Constitutional freedoms are front and centre—either as people demand them on the streets or they are threatened in many ways—accessibility to the document’s contexts and India’s relationship with its chapters become all the more important. Lounge spoke to Shruti V about the initiative and the Constitution, in light of the new ‘Love Jihad’ laws and more. Edited excerpts.
How and when did the idea to start the page come about? Tell us a little bit about the process and thought behind curating the posts?
My belief is that a better understanding of how the Constitution was created will help us approach the questions of today with empathy and nuance, both of which are much needed. The aim of The Equals Project is to make Constitutional history accessible to the layperson.
It is heartening to see more people, across political divides, engage with the Constitution. Over the past two years, I have seen readings of the Constitution in Tamil and Kannada – it is wonderful to see the Constitution not merely remain the domain of lawyers and intellectuals. The Equals Project looks to further this trend.
Why Instagram? And how has it been received so far?
When I started, the primary platform of the project was intended to be offline workshops with children and young adults. The Instagram page was only meant to supplement the offline workshops and highlight the work done there.
Today, the Instagram page has become a key platform of the project.
There are few, if any, accessible accounts of the process, and the people, who drafted our Constitution. Through these posts, I am hoping to bring Constitutional history out of law books, and impress upon a wider audience the importance of these debates to understanding India today.
The Instagram page has helped reached a more diverse audience and helped focus on content that is sharp and engaging.
What do you think the constitution and its history mean for the country today--in terms of processes and freedoms?
‘The working of the Constitution will depend on how people conduct themselves in the future, not on the actual working of the law’ – Dakshayini Velayudhan
The Indian Constitution grants legal equality in a society with deep social, cultural and economic differences. Even as Constitution makers were drafting the document, they recognised that the equality it aspired for was not necessarily compatible with socio-economic reality of India. Ambedkar himself was skeptical of the functioning of Indian democracy because of “a social structure which is totally incompatible with parliamentary democracy”
The backlash against individual freedoms is a recognition of the fact that the Indian state has not been successful in matching legal equality with social transformation.
For too long, we have hoped that the legal equality enshrined in the Constitution will translate to real social and economic equality, a hope that has not been realised. This has been amply visible in continuing caste violence, gender violence and economic disparity; and the inability of the state to control it. While some parts of the country have made progress in reducing a few of these inequities, it is a far cry from the equality that our Constitution aims for.
My hope is that these public debates force us to think about how we can create a more equitable society in India, both in law and action. How can we ensure that freedoms are reflected in reality and not just on paper?
You have workshops offline as well. Could you tell us a little about those?
The primary goal of The Equals Project is to explore Constitutional history and nation building with children and young adults, through experiential learning. In these workshops, we create simulations for participants, which require them to adopt the identities and motivations of their characters and negotiate with others who have opposing interests. The workshops seek to build appreciation for the idea of negotiated nations and to promote empathetic and critical thinking on how to approach contested issues in public life today.
In these workshops, we actively discard notions of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and explore forces that influence our understanding of identity. We hope to equip participants with the skills to engage with people whose views don’t align with their own.
My hope is that these workshops help create empathetic and engaged citizens.
I have been incredibly lucky to have formed early partnerships with institutions such as the Bangalore International Centre who have shown faith in this idea and allowed The Equals Project to use their platforms to reach a wider audience.
You touch upon some of the ignored aspects of the creation of the document. What are some of these and what do you think India of 2021 can learn from them?
I think there is a tendency to romanticise the Constitution making process and Constitution makers.
Yes, there were incredible men and women in the Assembly. Yes, they created a progressive document which set the country an ambitious task of guaranteeing freedoms and fostering equity. Yes, they were able to rise above identity politics, in some instances.
However, they were also flawed. Many of them were deeply attached to their regional, gender and caste identities. There were heated debates on the powers being given to the centre; and the Assembly was bitterly divided on the language issue.
There was even a member who told Hasrat Mohani ‘You may go to Pakistan’.
What I hope we can learn from them is not to idealise a different time or a type of leader, but to understand how to build coalitions amongst groups whose interests are not necessarily aligned with yours. And maybe, we will learn enough to not repeat historical mistakes.
How do current conversations on the Constitution help in the current political contexts?
I am excited about the growing public engagement with the Indian Constitution; and interpretations of the Constitution from people with different identities.
As someone who researches constitutional history, it is deeply disappointing to see that almost all constitutional books are written by men, most of whom belong to upper castes.
I am excited to see more diversity in the interpretation of the Constitution. How would a woman read the Constituent Assembly debates and some of the deeply sexist tropes that are present there? How does a Dalit woman interpret the history of the Constitutional court? How have sub-national identities engaged with freedoms and limitations offered by the Constitution? Can there be more interpretations of the Constitution in regional languages?
The language of the Constitution (both in its script and formality) can be alienating to many. The growing public interest in the Constitution can help change that.
Could you tell us a bit about your collaboration with the India Love Project? How did that come about and how does a concept like 'love jihad' hold up against the constitution and its history?
Like many others, I have been following the stories that the India Love Project has been highlighting on inter-community marriage.
As I have stated before, most of the issues in public life today have already been discussed in the Assembly and so I went searching for anything that the Assembly had to say about inter-faith and inter-caste marriage. While the Assembly itself did not debate the issue, buried in the deliberations of the Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee was a clause guaranteeing the ‘freedom to marry’. Why did this right not make it to the Constitution? Who was in support of it, who was not?
These are the questions I try to answer in my collaboration with the India Love Project.
What are your future plans for the page?
The primary plank of The Equals Project has always been working with children and young adults. While the pandemic halted some of the plans on this front, I am hoping to renew focus on that during 2021. Ideally, the project will look to foster institutional partnerships with schools and other educational organisations who are keen to impart not just civic education, but also equip children with negotiation and conflict management skills.
On a personal front, I would love to further female scholarship on the Indian Constitution.