Ideas can travel from a book into the minds of people, shaping their attitudes and behaviour; they can flow into streets and schools and become a social movement.
Against the backdrop of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and in similar venues across the country, the Preamble of the Indian Constitution has had such a transformation.
The text now looms large in the minds of youth and others contesting the unconstitutionality of the CAA and plans for the NRC. Seven decades after the Constitution promised to transform India through justice, equality, liberty, fraternity, and secularism, the Preamble has become part of a social movement that is rediscovering for society these democratic values. Worried over divisive politics, youth, lawyers, and politicians are recognising that the Preamble's message is more relevant than ever before.
The Preamble goes into the streets and schools
Reading out the Preamble in public has been an iconic feature of anti-CAA demonstrations across the country. In one of the earliest such events, in Hyderabad in December, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi led the crowd in reading the Preamble in Urdu first, and followed it with an English recitation. Throughout the gathering, national flags flew high.
Students have read out the Preamble, especially after the crackdowns on protests in educational institutes including Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, Lucknow’s Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama, Darul Uloom Deoband, and Hyderabad’s Osmania University and the Maulana Azad National Urdu University. Burqa-wearing students have broken stereotypes and turned out in streets to defend constitutional values. At the traditionally apolitical St. Stephen's College, Delhi, students boycotted classes and read the Preamble, protesting against the CAA and the NRC, and in solidarity with students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who were attacked by criminal elements. Traditionalist religious groups too have understood the merit of constitutional values.
The Preamble was recently inscribed into the walls of the dargah of the Sufi mystic Shah Makhdoom Fakih Ali at Mahim in Mumbai.
Lawyers have also come out. As senior advocate Elizabeth Seshadri, part of a rally of Madras High Court lawyers and law students in January, observed: "As lawyers, we fight every day in court on the basis of the Constitution. And when this Constitution, the very fundamentals [sic] of our society, is threatened, we can no longer stay quiet." An impromptu gathering of advocates on the Supreme Court lawns on January 7 saw them read out the Preamble in defence of our constitutional values. On January 20, lawyers at a protest at the Bombay High Court read out the Preamble to underline its message of equality irrespective of religion. At the Delhi High Court, lawyers recited the Preamble on 25 January, the eve of Republic Day.
These events reveal that the Preamble highlights our fundamental values as citizens, as Indians – not as Hindus or Muslims. Its importance is being realised by different sections of our society. In comprehending the constitutional meaning of citizenship, the protesters have understood that the Preamble protects the rights of citizens irrespective of their religious identity.
Opposition politicians have taken cues from the protests. In December former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, and others gathered at Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi, Rajghat, in Delhi and read out the Preamble to convey its universal message of equality and secularism. More dramatically, the Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad sat on the steps of Delhi's Jama Masjid and read out the Preamble to anti-CAA protesters.
Kerala’s chief minister in January announced the reading of the Preamble would now be a part of assembly sessions in schools and colleges to create awareness about constitutional values. Maharashtra implemented a similar policy from Republic Day onwards.
Eminent jurist Nani Palkhivala once described the Preamble as the identity card of the Indian Constitution. Its inclusion in school textbooks and morning assemblies creates a social contract between citizens and the Constitution as well as among citizens. In this manner, the Preamble is becoming not only the Constitution's identity card, but also the identity card of our and of our next generations.
A Nation’s Charter of Rights
The lawyer and legal scholar Gautam Bhatia has argued that the Preamble’s “declarations of universal justice, of equality, and of fraternity, […] speaks to us of the kind of country that we aspire to be." Encapsulating our constitutional values, it becomes the shortest charter of rights for our nation of 1.3 billion people.
The Preamble gives us a universal message of fraternity, and a principle of non-violence. It is a creator of a new morality and ethics to be learnt, to be practised by our people. It contains a philosophy and spirituality to be felt with all our hearts, by all our peoples. It helps us respect the dignity of the individual. As Justice R.C. Lahoti put it in the Anundoram Borooah Law Lecture in 1973, the Preamble’s importance is "to emphasise the positive aspect", especially "the unity of the nation" as much as the "dignity of the individual". Reflecting on the inclusion of the word "dignity" in the Preamble, Lahoti said: "Dignity was a word of moral and spiritual import; it implied an obligation on the part of the Union to respect the personality of the citizen and to create conditions in which every citizen would be left free to find individual self-fulfilment.”
The Preamble binds all the peoples of India to become rational and liberal citizens, and creates life goals for them.
In her book Why I Am a Liberal, Sagarika Ghose gives five arguments as to why Mahatma Gandhi was the greatest Indian liberal – a constitutional role model for all citizens. These five points also express the Preamble's inherent meanings. First, Gandhi was steadfast in his commitment to non-violence. This is an ideal that most anti-CAA protestors have consistently upheld. Second, Gandhi had a deep mistrust of an all-powerful, centralised, big government. The Preamble requires the state not to violate the dignity of the individual. This is an ideal the police forces in India are yet to learn.
Third, Gandhi had an abiding belief in the innate good sense of the individual, similar to the constitutional objective of dignity of the individual. Fourth, Gandhi was committed to constitutional values and equality for all before the law. This is a constitutional value violated by the CAA which seeks to discriminate between refugees based on their religion. Fifth, Gandhi had a fundamental respect for dissent. The government, ruling party politicians, and different communities must learn to respect dissenters.
These five characteristics of Gandhi’s liberalism are also defended by the Preamble. We should have eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to feel the new constitutional morality taught by the Preamble. India is going through a fierce debate about what citizenship means to us. The anti-CAA protesters have highlighted the relevance of the Preamble for every citizen irrespective of religious and other identities. Importantly, the Preamble is entering people's consciousness through textbooks and school assemblies, mosques and dargahs, protests and political leaders' statements. Its message is entering different sections of Indian society, notably among burqa-clad Muslim women who were until recently thought of as the most orthodox.
The Preamble, being a social contract between citizens of India, also moderates our differences. One of its messages is that we can disagree with the thoughts and views of others, but we cannot hate other citizens. A citizen is one who stands by other citizens. In this manner we can defend the Preamble's values and principles which seek to create a compassionate, rational, and liberal Indian citizen. Our society is still based on religion and caste, which will not disappear suddenly. However, new developments concerning the meaning of the Preamble indicate that it is becoming a social movement towards transforming us into good citizens.