Once confined to civics lessons, the Constitution is now a charged symbol of protest. Board games and T-shirts are giving it popular appeal, while a new generation of scholars is helping us rediscover its values
Sonam Joshi & Ketaki Desai | TNN
Last Sunday, a group of sixty children gathered in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, to learn about the Preamble of the Indian Constitution in an unusual way — by drawing it. They copied illustrations made by artist and lawyer Anushka Sachan, which simplified six concepts from the Preamble. Equality was conveyed through men and women balancing on a see-saw, liberty through a flying dove, democracy through voters casting their ballot and holding a placard, and fraternity through people of different faiths holding hands.
This exercise was the brainchild of a group of ten young lawyers. “Younger kids won’t understand the Constitution article by article but can identify words and concepts from the Preamble, which are pillars of the Constitution,” says Shrutika Pandey, one of the key people behind the initiative. There are plans for sessions in other cities and protest venues.
As the Indian Constitution turns 70 today, it has found a new lease of life. It has become a rallying point for protests, the subject of several new books, board-games, videos and even T-shirts with the Preamble printed on them.
“Indians are finally coming to see that their Constitution marked a special moment in global history,” says Madhav Khosla, who teaches law and politics at Columbia Law School and Ashoka University, and has written the book India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy. “The Constitution aimed to provide a new framework for politics — a framework where we would all be treated as free and equal beings, where we would be independent agents. The ongoing protests aim to recover this conception,” he says.
Over the years, many a besieged group has found its sword and shield in the Constitution. In the last few years, adivasis in Jharkhand have asserted themselves by claiming the Constitution and engraving its provisions on rock. Ambedkarite movements have long made the document central, and today, Muslims and other Indians are using it to affirm their equal citizenship.
These recent months mark a shift, says Rohit De, legal historian and author of A People’s Constitution. “In the past, the Constitution was involved by particular groups to protect particular interests, so landlords agitated for the right to property, prostitutes for right to profession, writers and artists for free speech. Today, we see the involvement of groups cutting across demo g raphics,” De says.
There’s also a reason why the Preamble has come into focus. “The Preamble is the soul of the Constitution. The argument is not just for a particular right but a government guided by law and structured on the founding principles of the republic. At a time when all opposition is branded anti-national, protestors are defining patriotism in terms of the Constitution rather than religion or language,” he says.
“The body of the Constitution is largely inaccessible to many people. The Preamble, on the other hand, is succinct, clear and transparent,” says Aakash Singh Rathore, author of Ambedkar’s Preamble. He adds that he was quite surprised by its invocation during the protests. “It makes sense because so many people perceive the government to be attacking the principles, foundations of the Constitution,” he says.
Meanwhile, IITBombay has been holding a daily lecture series on the Preamble, delving into ideas such as sovereignty and socialism. Each lecture is being attended by around 70-80 students, and posted online. States such as Maharashtra and Chattisgarh have also made recitation and discussion of the Preamble mandatory for schools.
Others are taking the Constitution beyond the classroom. Activist Harsh Mander’s Karwan-e-Mohabbat initiative has been running an online campaign called #HamaraSamvidhan, inviting citizens and celebrities to shoot a short video on what the Constitution means to them. Comedians like Sanjay Rajoura and Aditi Mittal, and actors Swara Bhasker and Sushant Singh have pitched in.
If #HamaraSamvidhan takes a personal approach, the Bengalurubased Fields of View believes that engagement with the Constitution needs to be critical rather than just reverential. The group, which designs board games and simulations, began The Constitution Project in 2018. “We brought together teachers, journalists, activists, designers, and others to articulate what the project should do,” says co-founder Sruthi Krishnan. They decided that they wanted the audience to engage with the Constitution as a living document and facilitate dialogue and debate. The result is a game being created in collaboration with Suruchi Soren, a masters student at NID Ahmedabad. “Players contend with competing perspectives that inform different social issues and how fundamental rights under the Constitution are negotiated. We are testing the game,” says Krishnan. Meanwhile, Chennaibased apparel company Aaramkhor has been selling a ‘Preamble’ T-shirt this last month, which has done even better than the Jokerinspired tees they launched in October. “We noticed conversations about the Constitution everywhere, online and in real life. We thought that this design would resonate with people, and it has,” says founder Ashok Kumar.
Beyond the protests, this growing interest in the Constitution has been fuelled by several factors. Until recently, scholarship tended to focus on the legal doctrine alone, but De points out that writings by political theorists, historians, and anthropologists have shown how original its ideas were. Social media conversation and popular writing, TV shows like Shyam Benegal’s Samvidhaan or former Supreme Court judge Leila Seth’s book, ‘We, the Children of India’, also helped. “The recent campaigns for privacy, LGBT rights and net neutrality all drew in large numbers of young people into thinking about how the Constitution affected them. The campaigns for information, right to food and forest rights have helped these ideas percolate in rural areas,” he says.
But can this new visibility have a long-term impact on the place of the Constitution in public life in India? It has certainly resulted in an increased focus on civil liberties, minority rights and due process, says De. “While the protests have been on CAA, we can see increased public awareness about tools of government control (curbing assembly, internet bans etc), and an emerging popular critique based on civil liberties,” he says.
COLOUR OF PATRIOTISM: Children at Shaheen Bagh learn about the Preamble by drawing it. (Below) Preamble-inspired T-shirts have sold well in the last month