India’s Constitution has endured and survived through its post-independence pangs amidst challenges, amendments and critiques with an extraordinary grace and sturdiness. Its dynamism and elasticity evoked assurances and added to the citizen’s belief in the project of nation building even during some of its darkest moments. What, however, remained rather under-profiled is its preamble as the signpost of India’s civilizational aspiration as a new nation. Some of its key words that actually defined the core principles of a new nation have been equality, liberty, justice, fraternity, secular, socialist, republic and democratic.
Interestingly some of these words have been shrouded in controversies that generated intense debates across the decades in the post- independence India.
The most fundamental thing to understand about the preamble is that it signifies the moral template of free India and its constitutive logic as a nation. More than the “tenability” of its key words, it is critically significant as the torchbearer of a people that wished to set a new benchmark amidst the comity of nations, not in terms of developmental or materialistic wherewithal but through demonstration, almost in an audacious way, of sheer humanitarian intent and its moral prowess at the time of its birth. Making an assessment of these in terms of its perfections or imperfections painfully gloss over its central meaning, its aspirational values. Dr BR Ambedkar was well aware of the challenges to the ideals that were enshrined in the preamble of the Constitution. His sharp and penetrative insight that while perhaps it would be possible to ensure equality and liberty through legal provisions but how would one ensure fraternity in a caste-entrenched hierarchical society was reflective of that anxiety towards the tenability of these ideals. Yet their mere presence was invested with great values by the makers of modern India.
As a matter of fact, these key words of the preamble are essentially like “ideal types”, to use German Philosopher Max Weber’s methodological concept, the ideas which were highly improbable to ever exist as real in their absolute sense. They were essentially imagined as benchmarks, to measure or assess the level of a society’s evolution on some of the key humanistic premises and parameters. Let us take, for instance, the word secular which is perhaps the most debatable and controversial component. Was India ever secular in its definitional sense? Was there ever a time in free India when the prototype segregation between religion and state did take place? In a country where religious sensibilities are galore, and customs and rituals vary at every kilometre, the kind of clean separation that the European variant of secularism expected between the state and the clergy was always a non-starter. However the thought behind the inclusion of this word, one would assume, was essentially to remind ourselves of the dangers of mixing of religion with the activities of the state.
Let me invoke my own reflections and autobiographical insights to illuminate this point around secularism.
As someone who grew up in a village in the Hindi heartland, in the 70s and 80s, and went to government, or sarkaari, schools, as they were popularly called, I recall all my school prayers. Most, almost all, of these prayers were dedicated to Hindu divinities, mostly paying obeisance to Goddess Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, in its invocation and references. In fact in that particular primary school that I attended, on every Saturday, there used to be recitation of Hanuman Chalisa. It is clear that secularism; specially the way it got practised and performed every day, was localized and certainly not under the panoptican gaze of the state apparatus. Needless to mention, Saraswati Puja was conducted on Basant Panchami every year with much fanfare in the schools. In other words there was no micro-management of the everydayness of secularism and it was left to be regulated by the local context, acceptability and sensibilities. But if one were to look at it from the lens of standardized text book definition, it will clearly come across as a violation of the tenets of the concept. Perhaps the understanding was to allow the customary practices to evolve in an organic way, bereft of any combativeness and imbued with the spirit of Gandhian co-existentialism and Sarv dharma sambhao (respect for all the religions).
Let’s now move away from the anecdotal to rather factual and institutional. Let’s consider some of the iconic organizations of India that were founded in the 50s and 60s, such as IIT-K (1950/51), AIIMS (1956), UGC (1956), IIMs, DRDO (1958), AICTE (1945/1987) and others and take a look at their logos and mottos. It would be interesting to observe the consistency with which most of these institutions derived their mottos in Sanskrit. UGC carries the motto of Gnyan Vignan vimuktaye meaning knowledge liberates; AIIMS carries the motto Sahrirmadhyam Khalu dharmsaadhnam, meaning the body is indeed the primary instrument of dharma, DRDO writes Balasya mulam vignanammeaning strength’s origin is in science and the AICTE has Yogah karmashu kaushalam as its motto . Most of the IIMs and IITs too derive their mottos from Sanskrit texts. Mind you, these were all premier flagship institutions of modern, independent India and hence a hard-core, text book brand of secularist might actually accuse the then state and those at the helm of actually pandering to the majoritarianism, looking at these mottos. In fact this became a trend setter, a standard template, especially with the educational institutions, in those decades and even later to have mottos borrowed from Sanskrit texts.
The bottom line is the founding leaders of the nation were clearly aware of the humongous level of diversity, differences and overlaps and hence the effort was to subtly push the momentum of citizenship building towards a modern, scientific, progressive and liberal path without being overly intrusive, bureaucratic and intimidating to the local cultural contexts. The approach was clearly to allow the diverse religious traditions to flourish in togetherness with minimal intervention from the state. And this approach largely worked well where the state positioned itself as equidistant from all the religions. True, there were abuses but largely the attitude remained committed to the equidistant approach.
On other counts too, such as equality, justice, liberty, much is still required to be done. A more mature and serious response would be to recognize the spirit and the intent behind these ideals as enshrined in the preamble of our Constitution and rededicate ourselves to achieve them. Preamble is therefore not a bureaucratic document; an academic ritual called preface; it’s a plaque of our commitment to the higher ideals that “We the people” resolved to strive for. As we celebrate the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, let’s remember the promises that we made to ourselves in that midnight of 1947. Let’s not allow the tempest of crass pragmatism blow away the moral citadel of India. We are a nation not because of our adhaar cards; we are a nation because we the people have dedicated ourselves to a collective moral project of nation building. Let’s keep reminding us that and vow to protect the preamble and its spirit as it is the moral pivot of the idea of India.
(The writer is a sociologist based in Chandigarh)