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Bring the public back into the republic

Bring the public back into the republic
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First Published: Sat, Jan 23 2010. 12 30 AM IST

 We the people: Rajendra Prasad was the president of the Constituent Assembly.
We the people: Rajendra Prasad was the president of the Constituent Assembly.
Updated: Sat, Jan 23 2010. 11 50 AM IST
Drafted under Ambedkar, shepherded by Patel, articulated by Nehru and presided over by Rajendra Prasad, the Indian Constitution espouses the noblest of ideals. It is far more detailed than its American counterpart, which held that all men are created equal, but glossed over festering societal inequalities with respect to blacks and women. Lincoln had to wage a war to abolish slavery, and the suffragette movement struggled for years before voting rights were given to women. India’s Constitution, right from its inception, addressed a range of issues that could cause communal tensions. It gave voice to minorities and provided forums for debate.
We the people: Rajendra Prasad was the president of the Constituent Assembly.
Unlike the Japanese constitution, which was written in a scant few months by foreigners under General MacArthur and presented to the Diet as a fait accompli, India took three years to write what is arguably the longest constitution in the world. It has 94 amendments. Japan has none. Although written by the elite, India invited submissions from political parties, religious groups and the general public, testifying, as Ramachandra Guha says in his book, India after Gandhi, to “the baffling heterogeneity of India, but also to the precocious existence of a rights culture among Indians” that harked back to the early gana sanghas or republics of ancient India. The Constitution borrows more from Western liberalism than the flowering republics of Aryavarta. It was also written amid crises: refugees of Partition, food scarcity, religious riots and intransigent princes. “Fundamental rights framed against the carnage of fundamental wrongs,” as historian Granville Austin put it.
And yet, the Indians engaged. They—our predecessors—discussed basic human rights, language, minorities, tribals, women’s issues, and how much to borrow from Western norms. As Guha says, “They were many; they were divided; and they were vocal.” Born of this messy consensus, the Indian Constitution is a magnificent document. It also needs to be rewritten, not in the literal sense but in order to popularize it and make it speak to “we the people” who have inherited its doctrines.
Ask 20 Indians in any metro what they know about our Constitution. Ask 100 college students if they know its tenets. I am willing to bet good money that you’ll find one, maybe two Indians who will have some clue about what our Constitution says. Compare this to America or France, republics both. In the movie, The American President, actor Michael Douglas discusses the constitution with his daughter, Lucy. News anchors and politicians bring up its “self-evident” truths during programmes that have very little to do with politics. In France, constitutional trivia provides fodder for television quizzes and game shows. America’s constitution permeates the national dialogue, even today. It stays current and relevant because its citizens still discuss it. Indians, on the other hand, have placed the Constitution on so high a pedestal that it has stopped resonating with the very people it was intended for. Simply put, we need to popularize what our republic stands for, somewhat like South Africa has recently done. We need to market it, not to the scholars who read K.M. Munshi but to the teenagers who listen to Bollywood rap. We need the Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyer-meets-A.R. Rahman version of it.
This is not hard to do. Karadi Tales can do a sing-along version of India’s first principles. Amar Chitra Katha can create an illustrated story of how our Constitution came to be. Pratham Books can commission a Constitution for Children series, fraught as it is with colourful characters set against a dramatic backdrop. Rajkumar Hirani could get over his 3 Idiots and write the Munna Bhai equivalent for the Constitution. Just as bumbling Munna contemporized the Mahatma’s message, a wise-cracking, fast-talking Koli fisherwoman can enact Gandhiji’s dream of an “untouchable woman president” on the big screen and popularize the tenets of this republic. We need Mallu, Maadu, Sindhi and Sardarji jokes about our Constitution; we need to get Robert and Mona Darling to banter about its issues; we need ad jingles that skew its message; we need saas-bahu serials that invoke its lines; we need college debates and reality shows based on it. We need our Constitution to speak to us. All it takes is a few celebrities to get the ball rolling. Instead of tatkal twittering and then blaming the media for taking his message out of context, minister Tharoor (who, I personally think, has had enough of being minister) can tweet about the Constitution rather than his calendar. Chetan Bhagat can write about the state of our republic after his 2 States. Our rich heritage of folk songs and street theatre can be used to make this important historical document come alive for its citizens.
Consider Article 16, which talks about equality of opportunity. The rap version would be, “Yo Bro. You wanna job. You gotta job. Equal opportunity but social justice. Peace, man.” The rap version of Article 19 can dispense with the “notwithstanding” and other legal but necessary jargon and emphasize the basic rights of free speech, assembly, association and movement. For example, the folk version could be a catchy Asha Bhosle tune about a nation of talkers who move within the motherland and love to get together. Or some version thereof.
By making the Constitution accessible, we not only help India’s future citizens know their rights and responsibilities, we also teach both the elite and the common man not to take its blessings for granted. The lofty ideals of the Indian republic are worth fighting for. They just need to trickle down from scholars to schoolchildren; from libraries to lounge bars; from educational institutions to no-name addas. The “Constitution is a living document”, as the government of India’s website says. Simplifying and popularizing it will mean no disrespect. Rather, it will lay the foundation for the people to understand and enact its tenets more faithfully than we are now doing.
Shoba Narayan is channelling the rapper, T-Pain, as she reads the Indian Constitution.
Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Jan 23 2010. 12 30 AM IST