As India celebrates its 71st Republic Day, the nation is seeing unprecedented mass protests against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that uses religion as a criterion for determining fast track access to refugees for Indian Citizenship. Combined with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), this law could potentially strip vulnerable minorities of their nationality. The protests that began in December with the passing of CAA have now spread across the country with millions of Indians from all walks of life asserting their secular identity and belief in national harmony and equality – principles enshrined in our Constitution.
It is not a surprise therefore that a common sight at these protests is a reading of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. Most of us would have read it in middle school in Civics. I do not know how many still remember it, but this is a good time to go back to reading it and remind not only ourselves of what are the founding principles of our country but more importantly tell our children about it. We are perhaps the last generation of people who would have heard first hand stories of the freedom struggle from our grandparents. Now it is upon us to remind our children of the values our elders fought for and how to imbibe them as a way of life.
Given the current context, it becomes even more important to talk to our children about the Indian Constitution, its making, its values and the rights and duties. And what better time to do that than today. I am making it a little easier for you by deconstructing it as simply as possible.
What is a Constitution? And why is it needed?
In the simplest terms, the constitution of any country is a set of laws that decides how the country will be governed. The constitution lays down who will govern the country, how will they be chosen, what are the principles that should guide them and what are the rights and duties of the citizens.
But why is a constitution needed at all? A constitution is needed to ensure that a country is not ruled by force, that it is not controlled by a group of powerful people and that all citizens are treated fairly.
Let us say for example that you and your friends love to play cricket. You make two teams and toss a coin to decide who bats first. At the start of the game, you decide it is a 10-10 over game and mark the boundaries. Here you have set the rules of the game. Without these rules an over could go on forever and not end with 6 balls, or the batsman may decide s/he is not leaving the crease even after getting out. And what would you do in case the strongest child decides not to follow these rules? That’s a tough one isn’t it?
As you see, if a small game needs rules to be played fairly, you would definitely need a large set of rules to ensure that a country is run properly. Here is a good video you can watch to understand what is a constitution.
When did our constitution come into being? And why did it take 3 years after independence?
Well before I answer that, did you know how long our constitution is, or how many people wrote it and how many of those were women? No? Then, let’s see some trivia about our constitution first.
Interesting stuff, isn’t it?!
Anyway, let’s go back 73 years when India gained independence in 1947. You may know that this was a very difficult period in India’s history when it was ripped into two separate countries along religious lines and this was followed by devastating riots across the borders as hordes of people crossed over into India or Pakistan. Besides the religious divide, India at the time of its independence was an extremely poor country and deeply divided by caste, class and language. Majority of people were uneducated, a large part illiterate, there wasn’t enough food for people and there was no health care system in the country. The India you live in today has come very very far from where it was 70 years ago. But we still have much farther to go and you will be the torchbearers.
Want to watch another video? Here is one on the history of the constitution.
Our freedom fighters had won the country but now they had to find a way to sustain it, to manage it and run it. Soon after independence they decided to write the constitution. (Did you know that the British offered to write it for us? We politely refused.) It took almost 300 representatives and 3 years to write the constitution. To ensure that everyone had a voice in the writing of the constitution, these 300 people came from across religions, regions, caste and educational backgrounds. It was not an easy task to bring together the opinions of so many people but in the end our constitution was built upon the principles of Equality, Liberty, Justice and Fraternity.
Nice sounding words – but what do they mean?
Good question. Let us start with the Preamble to our Constitution. The Preamble is the very first sentence (a pretty long one!) that defines the guiding principles of the Constitution. Read it aloud, before we launch into the explanation.
We, People of India (this bit itself fills me with immense pride!) – (it means all of us Indians, including children)
having solemnly resolved (have decided to) to constitute India into a:
Sovereign, (we decide for ourselves – no one else decides for us)
Socialist, (we produce and share wealth)
Secular, (we respect all religions)
Democratic Republic (a country run by people elected by its citizens)
And to secure to all citizens: (give all its citizens)
Justice, social economic and political; (all people should be treated fairly and honestly)
Liberty, of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship (everyone should have the freedom to think and speak what they like, follow their beliefs and practice any religion.)
Equality; of status and opportunity (all citizens should be treated equally regardless of where they come from, what religion they practice or whether they are rich or poor, educated or illiterate)
And to promote among them all
Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. It means that all Indians should live together as a family despite our differences. India’s biggest strength is its Unity in Diversity.
Our Constitution as our Way of Life
Yes, you heard that right. Our constitution actually teaches us how to live our lives, how to be human. If you apply each of the words learnt above to yourself, you will realise how important it is for us to follow them. Only then would we be able to protect our rights and others’. Let’s see how some of these could apply to us.
So how can we be socialist? We all go for school picnics – don’t we. I am not sure about now, but we used to bring tasty food from home and share with each other. Now imagine one child could not get anything from home. Would you exclude him or her from the treat? What if you forgot to bring food? Would you want others to share their food with you?
What about being secular? India is a large country with people practicing almost all religions of the world. Each religion carries the message of love – only difference being that their way of following that message is different. Imagine going to a place where you are not treated properly because of the way you pray or not!
“This is not fair!!” when was the last time you yelled this? Did someone cheat you in a game? Or did a teacher play favourite? Think how would it be if only children who got A grades got go out and play during recess? NOT FAIR! So now you know what justice is. Getting a fair and honest treatment regardless of your background.
Are you allowed to express your opinion if you don’t like something? If not, then your liberty/freedom is at risk! You should be able to do think and say what you believe in and practice what you think is right – as long as it does not affect anyone else’s right.
And you should be treated equally, no matter what. How would it sound, if there was a painting competition but only those children who lived within 5 kilometers of the school could participate? That means, all children are not being treated equally. What if you lived 7 kilometres away? Would you protest? Yes, you should. You should fight for your rights.
What if you lived within 5 kilometers and so did most children, but 3 of your classmates did not. Would you protest? Yes, you should. Because you should not worry only about your rights – you should also be concerned about others’ rights. We need to have each other’s back.
This leads us to fraternity. Meaning living like a family. Living as one unit. Let’s go back to cricket or any other sport. Your team can only win if it plays together and supports every member of the team. So if we want to see India among top nations – it is important that we live together as a family, treat every one fairly and support everyone at their time of need.
Was that a lot of reading? Here, watch a video about your fundamental rights and duties and learn to be a good citizen! In the meantime, I will carry on the discussion with your parents.
Also see some good references for books:
We the Children of India – by Leila Seth
A Children’s History of India – by Subhadra Sen Gupta
What does the Constitution mean to you?
To be honest, I don’t think I read the preamble after my class 8 Civics exam. But I know I have been brought up to live these ideals. I grew up feeling immensely proud of our country – because of the rich diversity of culture – food, clothes, language, dances, music, architecture….. you name it and we can give you hundreds of varieties of anything! I remember commercials from our childhood talking about religious diversity – hindu, muslim, sikh, isai – apas mein sab bhai bhai. Clearly, they worked! My grandfather adopted a surname that wouldn’t easily reveal the caste – so I knew from childhood that caste segregation wasn’t good. One doesn’t need to read the preamble to be reminded of these values. They should run in our blood.
My fried Kiranjeet thinks along the same lines, “I think family history plays a role in how one looks at it. My grand uncle was the first student satyagrahi in undivided Punjab and Gandhiji named him ‘Vidyarthi’ when he dropped out of medical school at the call for non cooperation. That family story impacted my father. There was a direct and personal stake in the freedom movement and reframing the rules for the new nation state. The question of minority rights, language, education, justice – almost everything, impacted the lives of displaced partition refugees and thanks to there being a well thought out constitution, there were institutions and to handle disputes and offer benefits and opportunities. The citizens had a sense of pride even though this was a battered country especially in North West India.”
My colleague Poorna believes that the Constitution is our way of life. “India is a young democracy with young democratic institutions – so young that our older generation still consists of those born pre-independence. Which is why the constitution has always been the standard set of values for all of us. Its drafting by a Dalit is of immense symbolic value in a caste fixated country like ours. And it’s progressiveness and emphasis on secularism and universal franchise was path breaking for its time.”
Fellow Alumnus Karuna believes that the Constitution reinforces our freedom and equality and thus holds out a lot of hope and positivity for the future. “Constitution for me is essentially about the preamble we read as kids – its an achievement of the long fought freedom struggle. It symbolizes freedom and equality for me and is an assurance that my kid and I won’t be or cannot be discriminated against systematically.”
Another fellow alumnus Kishore brings attention back to our duties, “To me constitution is my God. I keep telling this to my children and friends that the liberty we enjoy in India is all thanks to the constitution. But most of us neglect the duties and responsibilities listed in it.”
So these are some thoughts on what fellow country(wo)men have about the Constitution. What are yours? Would love to hear.
And please do make the children in your family read and also please share with your friends and family.