Jhe Indian Constitution, as the American historian Granville Austin has pointed out, is an elite document. Despite its enactment and endurance for 75 years, the Constitution has not become a popular book. But that is changing now. Communities and protesters own it and slowly celebrate it.
“Gita se na chalta hai na chalta Quran se, chalta hai desh hamara Bhim ke Samvidhan se (our country is neither ruled by the Gita nor the Koran, it is ruled by the Constitution of Bhimrao Ambedkar). With this catchy song, the Bheel community of Udaipur, Rajasthan not only engages with the Constitution but also has its chief architect, Bhimrao Ambedkar. Through folk songs, small gatherings, and problem solving of everyday life, the Bheels and many other communities are finding more and more meaning in the Constitution.
Bheels form small groups of volunteers and reach out to communities to spark conversations around the Constitution, preambular values, and problem-solving by invoking constitutional principles.
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Indigenization of the Constitution
Another such group operates out of Jodhpur and is led by young people from the Kalbelia community – a tribe of snake charmers left on the fringes after the enactment of the 1971 Wildlife Protection Act. It is interesting to see how these communities – about whom there is virtually no discourse in mainstream Indian society – engage with the Constitution through tribal songs and daily activities.
These youth-led groups invoke fundamental constitutional principles to address issues of representation, ration access, birth certificates and proof of residency, issues common to historically nomadic communities like the Kalbelias.
These initiatives are also taken by a network of civil societies, which acts as capacity building. They train individuals through cross-learning workshops and community gatherings while acting as knowledge-sharing platforms. Constitutional democracies around the world face an existential crisis, but this community engagement can allow us to reshape the idea of constitutional endurance and see it in the broader perspective of engaging with people who are true stewards. of this document. As we celebrate 75 years of Indian independence, it is crucial to move forward with the indigenization of our first document.
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The issue of inaccessibility
Despite its importance, the Indian Constitution cannot be called accessible. However, it performed well in the endurance test. Scholars Tom Ginsburg, Zachary Elkins, and James Melton argue that the average lifespan of a written constitution is 19 years. The Indian Constitution has survived almost four times longer than their research suggests.
But is this survival the only reason for such endurance? Professors Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Sujit Choudhary and Madhav Khosla argue that the Constitutions persist for various reasons. One of the most important reasons is that it provides space for the settlement of elite aspirations while including groups that were previously excluded and sidelined. However, the literature on the durability of the Constitution does not take into account the issue of civic engagement. As important as it is to them, the ordinary person’s interaction with the Constitution is limited at best.
For example, a Constitution Connect survey of 93 schools in India found that only 33 schools practiced reciting the preamble or engaging with the Constitution during morning assemblies. This is despite a clear mandate from the government on the recitation of the national anthem in school assemblies. Although students address the Constitution in their political science courses, it is not from a practical perspective.
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A paradigm shift
British Constitutionalist Ivor Jennings has called the Indian Constitution a “lawyer’s paradise” because of the complexity of language and expressions it has adopted. Jennings’ assertion is not false. The lexical complexity of the Constitution has distanced its values and principles from ordinary mortals. For the past 75 years, neither the state nor civil society has attempted to bring the Constitution to the people. However, after 2014, we have seen increased engagement.
In 2015, the Forum for Popularization of the Constitution of India started organizing public events in several languages on constitutional issues. Gradually, civic organizations like the Center for Law and Policy Research began curating texts on the Constitution, while those like Constitution Connect began working in regional languages to make the text more accessible. Scholars like Professor Tarunabh Khaitan and lawyer-researcher Surbhi Karwa have organized online videos and podcasts to spread knowledge about constitutional theories to the masses.
Reciting the preamble and possessing copies of the Constitution have become popular means of dissent in recent years, especially during anti-CAA protests between 2019 and 2020. These efforts were limited to non-state actors until the government of Kerala begins efforts for constitutional literacy. In January, the Kollam district panchayat, the district planning committee and the Kerala Institute of Local Government took the initiative to impart basic knowledge on the preamble and fundamental rights.
Proponents of constitutional literacy initiatives argue that knowledge of state power enables individuals to act as constitutional guardians. Christopher Dreisbach in his book, Constitutional Literacy – A 21st Century Imperative, says that “knowledge of (the) Constitution (is sufficient) to invoke it validly”. These invocations reinforce the role of citizens as constitutional guardians. So, as India completes 75 years of independence, we must strive to make the Constitution simple, jargon-free and, above all, accessible.
Rajesh Ranjan is a comrade of Samta. He is also a co-organizer of the Legal Aid and Awareness Committee at the National Law University, Jodhpur. Views are personal
(Editing by Zoya Bhatti)