Swapan Dasgupta | 21 Jan, 2016
There are some childhood memories that are abiding: observing Republic Day is one of them. There are facets of the celebrations during the 1960s that will always remain with me.
First, there was the excitement over raising the flag, carefully tied to an iron pole, on the terrace. This was followed by the drive with my grandfather and, after he died in 1965, my father, to the factory gates. There, a flag, neatly folded into a bundle, would be raised to a pole. Then, at the pull of the rope, the flag would unfurl and rose petals would emerge from the bundle to the cry of ‘Vande Mataram’. There was always one guy who began the chant and, subsequently, I was told that he was an INA veteran who, apparently, my grandfather had employed on ‘patriotic’ considerations. The security guards, neatly turned out in their uniforms, would stand to attention, look upwards and salute the flag. Subsequently, a man with a harmonium would sing a few patriotic songs—never anything filmy—and after the National Anthem, everyone would be handed out a small box of Bengali sweets.
One year, my father took me to watch the parade on Red Road. By the standards of the grand parade on Delhi’s Rajpath, the event in Calcutta was an amateur performance. But those were pre- television days and though the radio commentary—with the voice of Melville de Mellow—was fascinating, all that we really glimpsed of the post-imperial grandeur was either from next day’s blurred black and white photos in the newspapers or, if we were very lucky, from the short ‘Indian News Review’ that preceded the main film in cinemas. The high point of excitement in Calcutta was the parade of the Mounted Police and the Governor’s American car with an open roof.
By the late 1960s, the innocence of the earlier days came to an abrupt end—in Calcutta at least— thanks to political turbulence. We read of attacks on flag-hoisting ceremonies by the same lot of impetuous radicals who beheaded statues of iconic Indians and murdered ageing Vice Chancellors inside the campus. The numbers of improvised roadside flag-hoisting ceremonies, each dutifully embellished with portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, came down significantly. In a city where the walls loudly proclaimed that China’s Chairman was our Chairman too, the space for uncluttered commitment to Indian nationhood shrunk—without, of course, inviting the displeasure of the ‘intellectuals’ who, by then, were making cannon fodder of an entire generation of young people.
My recollection of those turbulent years was of reading the despondent articles in the Republic Day supplements produced by the main English and Bengali newspapers. With headings such as ‘India at the crossroads’ or ‘Whither India?’, the prognosis was of impending doom, of a ‘Green revolution’ turning ‘Red’, of a dysfunctional political class, of a flawed political system and the uselessness of electoral democracy—recall West Bengal had four state Assembly elections in the five years between 1967 and 1972. Republic Day, it appeared to me, was like a bi-annual stocktaking exercise, the other being Independence Day, when notables delivered their judgments on the state of the nation and invariably found things wanting. There was a flurry of excitement one year when General (he was made Field Marshal subsequently) KM Cariappa, a revered former Army chief, pronounced that India needed a dictatorship. There were many takers for his prescription.
What I can remember vividly about the debates on Republic Day was that they centred on the quality of Indian democracy and the state of politics. I don’t exactly know whether the official Hindi translation of Republic Day was Prajatantra Diwas or not. In everyday parlance, however, the term used was Ganatantra Diwas or Democracy Day that marked India’s transition to a full-fledged democracy. Independence Day was always Swadheenata Diwas, the day we recovered national sovereignty.
To my mind, the vernacular usage equating 26 January with democracy was highly significant. The emphasis was on popular sovereignty as an ideal and on the institutions and instruments that would enable a robust expression of popular will. It was much, much later—possibly around the late-1980s and inextricably linked to the mobilisation over the Ram temple in Ayodhya—that the term ‘Republic’ and, by association, the Constitution came into play as an autonomous, almost self-contained, point of reference.
The shift was almost entirely borrowed from European experiences. There was, firstly, the French preoccupation with the legacy of the 1789 revolution. And there was post-war Germany’s discovery of something called ‘constitutional patriotism’. To their advocates, the blend of the two had a definite purpose: to insulate both the national will and particularly nationalism from the state, if not politics altogether.
The French intellectuals’ deification of the Republic— never mind the fact that France had about as many republics as Zsa Zsa Gabor had husbands—served two ends. At a functional level, it stressed the absolute and rigid separation of the state from religion—what has come to be known the ‘hard secularism’ epitomised by the burkha ban and the defence of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Equally important was the French example that deftly separated national identity from its shifting and negotiable republicanism. It is not that the French lack a profound sense of national identity—quite unlike the amorphous Britishness that is complicating life in today’s United Kingdom. However, French national identity appears to be expressed in terms of the flag, language pride, cuisine, wine snobbery, fashion, art and culture rather than an emotional commitment to the existing Republic. In short, the essence of the Republic has become separated from national symbols—in part a consequence of the disagreeable circumstances of the Vichy counter-revolution between 1940 and 1944. Such a position is also almost certain to witness a hardening among Left Bank intellectuals if Marine Le Pen’s National Front continues its steady climb in the popularity charts.
The German example is equally instructive. The elevation of ‘constitutional patriotism’ to a national ideal was a direct consequence of Germany’s defeat and destruction in World War II. The horrific misdeeds of Hitler and the perversion of German nationalism under the Nazis persuaded the post-War leadership that all vestiges of the pre- War national tradition, dating back to Bismarck’s Prussian militarism, had to be firmly eradicated and removed from the overt ideology of the state. The pre-Bismarck separation of culture from politics—a phenomenon that had deep roots in German intellectual tradition—was consciously resurrected and the country dedicated its future growth to a European cosmopolitanism with an economic thrust. Beginning with Willy Brandt’s acceptance of Germany’s eastern frontiers with Poland and right up to Angela Merkel’s extra generosity towards asylum seekers from Syria, ‘constitutional patriotism’ in Germany has meant a conscious and near-total repudiation of the pre-1945 political past.
Like France, this doesn’t imply that German national identity has either ceased to exist or has been subsumed by a post-national European identity where the focus is on gender, environment and state-funded entitlements. There are facets of both public life and individual character that are undeniably German. The attempt has been to privatise these mentalities and inheritance and prevent them from moulding the direction of politics and the character of the state. It is said that Germany’s earlier example of liberal constitutionalism in the form of the Weimer Republic (1918-1933) failed because it was a ‘Republic without republicans.’ Post-Hitler, the attempt—largely successful—has been to negate the idea of a political national community. Germans are now expected to owe their primary allegiance, not to a sacred fatherland, but to a constitution.
In his On Nationality (1995), the Oxford political theorist David Miller has observed that subscribing to a constitution—‘ the common currency of liberal democracies’— can at best distinguish a democrat from either a fascist or a left-wing revolutionary ‘but it does not provide the kind of political identity that nationality provides.’ Miller stresses the fact that ‘it does not explain why the boundaries of the political community should fall here rather than there; nor does it give you any sense of the historical identity of the community, the links that bind present-day politics to decisions made and actions performed in the past.’ To Miller, the logical corollary of the denial of national identity is a ‘pathological’ view of the nation as a ‘supermarket’ where personal tastes and inclinations prevail over all else. It involves ‘putting a private set of cultural values in place of a public understanding of the terms on which we are going to carry on our collective life.’
There was a time when such a privatised view of national existence would have been seen as having absolutely no relevance to a country such as India which, despite the loss of self under colonial rule, has not experienced the type of turbulence that France and Germany witnessed in the 1930s and 1940s. Apart from the Partition that, despite the huge suffering and dispossession, quite paradoxically, created a more compact political community for future generations, India’s experience with Constitution- making was a happy blend of realism and idealism.
The Indian Constitution was essentially a broad set of rules by which the scope of government, political participation and individual rights were delineated. Jawaharlal Nehru tried to enlarge the scope of the Constitution by describing it as India’s ‘national philosophy’—a poetically reckless overstatement that future generations of Nehruvians have accepted at face value. Yet, apart from managing to insulate the zamindari abolition programme from judicial scrutiny, Nehru didn’t succeed in forcing an explicit socialist stamp on the document. The final document reflected a reasonably harmonious balance of the conflicting impulses within the Congress. The ‘national philosophy’ inherent in the Constitution stressed the virtues of ideological pluralism, accommodation and affirmative action for social justice. It was at the same time uncompromising on the likely threats to national unity —arguably the most pressing challenge before a political class that had just failed to contain Muslim separatism— and probably erred in facilitating the creation of an over-centralised state.
The Constitution that was finally delivered to the nation on 26 January 1950 didn’t reflect ‘national philosophy’ as a subsequent generation of Nehruvians have interpreted it. The more doctrinaire facets of the Constitution were a contribution of Indira Gandhi who used the opposition-free environment of the Emergency to rework the Preamble and inject the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ into the document. Subsequently, it was under the UPA Government that the Constitution was amended to incorporate other ‘rights’ such as the Right to Education and the Right to Food. There was method in this tokenism: the latter-day Nehruvians sought to transform the Constitution into an ideological straitjacket that would ensure that subsequent governments would not deviate from a set pattern of governance. During the Constituent Assembly debates, Law Minister BR Ambedkar had, for example, opposed the incorporation of the term ‘socialist’ into the Preamble because he felt that it was improper to tie future governments to one ideological course. Nehru’s dynastic successors didn’t suffer from any similar inhibitions and ended up devaluing the consensual sanctity of the Constitution.
The biggest casualty of this ideological thrust was that the some of the basic values inherent in democratic functioning— and which may not be codified—have suffered grievously. Competitive electoral politics, for example, is based on both the sanctity of the process and the acceptance of the outcome. Today, the Election Commission has actually made the electoral system more robust and credible. At the same time, the idea of a sporting loser seems to have disappeared and Parliament has been held hostage to a de-facto veto demanded by the leading Opposition.
With Parliament gradually losing its pre-eminence and even becoming dysfunctional, large areas of decision- making have devolved to unaccountable bodies such as the regulatory agencies and the judiciary. The process has given rise to bodies of professional ‘activists’ who disavow organised politics and profess a form of ‘constitutional’ vigilantism. This is because they believe that desirable change including social reform can only come about through the actions of an enlightened few in the civil services, the NGO movement and the law. Large facets of democracy—notably the exercise of popular sovereignty through representative institutions—have in fact been exorcised from Constitutional governance and placed in the hands of individuals who are seen to be above society—and often deeply contemptuous of its traditions and customs.
Thank God the grand parade replete with pageantry is still with us (and thriving) as a reminder that Republic Day was intended as a celebration of Ganatantra (democracy). Given a choice, Indians would prefer their national identity to prevail over a rootless version of ‘constitutional patriotism’ that has become so intensely fashionable—if only as a stick to beat Narendra Modi with.