The Idea of the Indian Constitution: Day 1

0 Comment

Naveen Kishore, Publisher at Seagull Books and Managing Trustee of The Seagull Foundation for the Arts ‘set the scene’, in his own words an irresistible urge as a theatrician, with a piece on the need for teaching our young the art of resistance in times where repeating falsehoods equals Truth.


‘When does a constitution become a requirement?’ 


With this question, historian Romila Thapar began her keynote address, offering a wide perspective  on the historical processes of transformations from kingdom to republic and subject to independent citizen state. Dismissing claims of India’s ancient singular ‘nationhood’, Prof Thapar also spoke of the different forms of nationalisms that accompany these transformations for late entrants into nationhood, highlighting, among much else, the role of history (and often by extension in case of religious nationalisms, mythology) in establishing the legitimacy of the governing elite. 


 ccccTaking on the baton from this rather perfect window into what was to follow over the three days of the conference, political scientist Valerian Rodrigues delivered his talk on ‘Constitutionalism and India’s Nationalist Imagination’. An established Ambedkar scholar, Prof Rodrigues located the text of the Indian constitution in the debates that informed the discourses of the freedom struggle in the years leading to 1947. Looking at important events that marked this trajectory (such as the Montague Chelmsford Reforms, Government of India Act 1935, Poona Pact, etc.), he proposed the genealogy of the debates that informed the making of the Constitution as a potential area of study for future constructions of Indian identities. In the Q and A that followed, the contents of what was a heavily academic talk found their way into the speaker-participant interactions, illuminating (for me at least) a few knots in the talk itself. 

 c c ccThe name of A.G. Noorani is a difficult one to miss for anyone interested in Indian legal history. Constitutional expert, lawyer and prolific author, Mr. Noorani spoke on the ‘Judiciary and the Constitution’, offering us a broad yet particular overview of the Indian Supreme Court’s changing approaches to the concept of the ‘independent judiciary’ in practice, over the years.  Referring to the Court’s role in specific cases, Mr. Noorani pointed to the gaping need for a formidable Law Review Journal in the country as an effective ‘check’ on the activities of the Judiciary. 


 ccccTaking a few steps away and back from the Indian nation, political theorist Rajeev Bhargava offered critical insight into why understanding Indian secularism as the adoption of western models of secularism is not only inadequate, but disastrous, and instead spoke on the approach of ‘principled distance’, an ethical distance between state and religion characteristic to the case of India (at least in theory).  Against restricting ‘secularism’ to only mean minority rights, Prof. Bhargava advocated for the need to look beyond inter-religious domination only, and bring attention to intra-religious dominance in terms of caste and gender equations within a religious community, emphasizing the need for more comparative scholarship on religious cultures of South East Asia. 

cccc R. Siva Kumar, art historian, critic and curator closed day 1 with an illustrated talk on Nandalal Bose and his project of illuminating the Indian Constitution. Charting the political development of Nandalal Bose from his participation in the Swadeshi Movement (while continuing to borrow techniques from Japanese and other artistic traditions) to his interactions with M.K.Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore (the latter of whom he had differences with but was later invited to teach in Vishwabharathi by), Kumar shed light on the interrelations between the artist’s evolving aesthetics and politics. Taking us through a fascinating visual presentation of working drafts of the artwork for the Constitution, Bose’s hand-scribbled notes on options for best representing the basic philosophies of the Constitution as it was    envisaged, he painted us a broad vista of the politics of both the form and content of the art that went into making possibly the world’s only illustrated Constitution.