By Tavleen Singh
January 26, 2020
There were many things that impressed and moved me when I
spent a morning in Shaheen Bagh last week. I was impressed by how clearly the
women leading the protest have understood why the changes in the citizenship
law mean more for them personally than Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his
ministers say they do. I was moved by their dedication, courage and resolve to
continue with their protest through a month of freezing cold days and nights.
But, what moved me most was a poster on the front of a podium that said ‘savers
of the Constitution’. It moved me most because in the seventieth year of its
birth, the Indian Constitution is being seen as it was meant to be seen: a
guarantee of democracy.
People continue to protest against the Citizenship
Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National
Population Register (NPR) on the 71st Republic Day, at Shaheen Bagh in New
Delhi on Jan 26, 2020. (Photo: IANS)
The men who wrote it translated a dream into a document. To
borrow Madhav Khosla’s words from his remarkable new book, India’s Founding
Moment, “At the heart of this moment — in which constitution-making and democratization
occurred simultaneously — lay the question of democracy in an environment
unqualified for its existence. Democracy was being instituted in a difficult
setting: poor and illiterate; divided by caste, religion, and language; and
burdened by centuries of tradition”.
Armed with the
Tricolour, the women raised slogans against CAA, NRC and NPR while displaying
banners that stated ‘stop dividing the nation’.
Unsurprisingly, for most of India’s early years as a modern
nation, there was constant speculation about when democracy was going to die.
Of the handful of Indians who could read and write in those dark times, too
many actually wished that it would die sooner than later. As someone who spent
most of those years in military towns, I remember hearing often that what India
needed was a decade of military dictatorship so that we could prosper as
Pakistan had by then. Hard though it is to believe today, Pakistan in its early
years of military rule was actually doing much better economically than
‘socialist’ India. And yet, democracy survived even through Indira Gandhi’s
So, it is quite wonderful that today, on the seventieth
birthday of our Constitution, those who are protesting against the
discriminatory changes in our citizenship law are using it as the symbol of
their protests. Last week lawyers in Mumbai gathered outside a court to read
the Preamble aloud in public. The government of Maharashtra has made it
compulsory to teach the Preamble in schools. And, the most promising young
Dalit leader of our time, Chandrashekhar Azad, came to Shaheen Bagh holding the
Constitution in his hands. The dream that the men who wrote it dreamed has become
a reality, and that is something to be celebrated.
Since Narendra Modi began his second term, the world has
started to see India as a country in which aggressive nationalism and religious
intolerance have become a serious threat to democracy. So much so that in Davos
last week, Imran Khan got away with telling an important international news
channel that India was in the grip of an ideology called ‘Hindu-vata’ that was
inspired by the Nazis. From a man who comes from a country that has been the
epicentre of jihadist terrorism for at least three decades, that is rich.
He got away with saying this because there appears to have
been a consensus at this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum that
India is in worse shape than ever before, both economically and politically.
Someone as eminent as George Soros had this to say, “The biggest and most
frightening setback occurred in India where Modi is creating a Hindu
nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous
Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of their
If this was not bad news enough for one week, The
Economist’s latest issue arrived on the day of my deadline for this column with
a cover story titled ‘Intolerant India’. The cover has the BJP’s saffron lotus
rising out of menacing rolls of barbed wire. The longish story inside caused me
to sink into a miasma of gloom. In long years of political journalism, almost
the only other time that I have read so much bad news about India was during
the Emergency. And, that was not so bad as now when bad news travels in seconds
because of the speed of social media.
To cheer myself up, I opened my notebook and read the notes
of my conversations with the women of Shaheen Bagh. I found that they had
talked more about the Constitution and the rights it guarantees them than
anything else. It was because of the Constitution that they believed nothing
bad would happen to them despite BJP spokespersons describing them as paid
protesters and Shaheen Bagh as a ‘mini-Pakistan’. There is far too much talk of
this kind. It actually ends up demeaning India more than Pakistan, but what
should cheer all of us up this Republic Day is that our Constitution is a
shining beacon in this troubled time.
Original Headline: Celebrate the Constitution in these