That lurking primus inter pares

The Equals Project works for citizen engagement with the Constitution of India and its values, especially potent for such a diverse nation

Pre-1947 India, a vibrant and overwhelming potpourri with no discernible homogeneity, presented a dilemma for the Constitution makers. They had been elected to write a governing document for the subcontinent, where there was no uniform language, religion, culture, governance system, or history. Even the map of the country was unclear at the time. How would they ensure power to all in a milieu fraught with the divisions of caste, religion, and language? How would democracy work in a set-up characterised by inequalities and differences? How would they create a common identity for a people so divided?

The drafting of the Constitution of India was an attempt to cement the Indian identity and create a governing document that would advocate equality and justice. The Constituent Assembly defined what the principles and values of the nation should be, the Constitution serving as a unifying force in a highly unequal country.

“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.

How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?

How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?

If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

Dr B.R. Ambedkar

The Constituent Assembly was a representative body tasked with writing the Constitution of India, creating a document that would define what it means to be ‘Indian’. Its members were selected through an indirect election by the Provincial Legislative Assemblies and princely states. While the claim of representativeness has been questioned many times (even within the Assembly), it was an attempt at deliberative decision-making.

After Partition, the Assembly consisted of 299 members—each with a unique idea of what the nation should constitute. While a majority of the members were upper caste men who belonged to the Indian National Congress, their political ideologies differed vastly. Libertarians, capitalists, socialists and communists argued about the economy and the role of the state. The role of religion was a sore point, framed as it was by the background of the Partition riots. India’s Muslims found themselves in a tenuous position, with their loyalties being questioned. The language debate was amongst the most bitter in the Assembly, with some members threatening to walk out if Hindi was made the national language.

While the Assembly agreed that the new nation must end caste and gender discrimination, it could not agree on the means through which this could be achieved. Many questioned if measures other than political equality were needed.

If many of these issues sound familiar, it is because these are the very same questions the Indian polity continues to debate. Language, religion, region, caste and gender evoke strong passions and divisive views. If we want to understand the India of today, we must look to the debates that laid the foundation for independent India.

At The Equals Project, we focus on this founding moment of India and the choices made by our founding fathers and mothers. In an incredibly tenuous and divisive environment, they produced a document that hopes to guarantee equity and justice and transform the nature of Indian society. By exploring the debates, we seek to promote empathetic citizenship within the country. We engage with the people, identities and stories behind the Constitution and highlight their relevance to the questions we are faced with today.

Constitutions are not merely legal documents, they also reflect the politics and morality of the time. Many were worried that divisions would override the Indian nation and political stability would evade the country. Some within the Assembly felt that the individual rights of persons and communities needed to be harmonised with the larger national interest.

Understanding the context in which the Constitution was created is just as important as the text itself. Through our work, we encourage citizens to understand the political incentives that underpinned the Constitution. Research highlights the role of constitutional actors beyond the Constituent Assembly. Ordinary citizens were invested in driving the constitutional process and engaged in various ways to make their voices heard. Democracy exerts itself in the constitutional process and its principles.

When constitutional values become the domain of lawyers and academics alone, when they lose resonance with the ordinary citizen, then they are in danger of being discarded. For constitutional values to thrive, we must all engage with them—in small, personal acts.

‘Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated.’

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

At The Equals Project we seek to cultivate constitutional morality, by discussing the Constitution in accessible ways. Only by encouraging individuals to reflect on the meaning and value of our Constitution can we preserve its values.

The winter of 2019 saw protests across the country related to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. What was significant was that the Constitution and the Preamble were seen all over the country. For the first time in decades, there was public engagement with constitutional values and what they mean to us. Those for and against the Act pointed to the Constitution as a justification. The Constitution stood as the founding document of India and a reminder of what our aspirations were as a people.

The Equals Project seeks to build on this renewed engagement with the Constitution and its values. We seek to understand what our Constitution makers envisioned and why that vision and process could help guide us today. We aim at going beyond being citizens or subjects, at becoming empathetic constitutional actors.

The first medium through which this journey began was with simulations of the Constituent Assembly debates. Through these courses and simulations we encourage students to take on the role of drafters themselves and to explore the limits and possibilities of the Constitution. We also invite people to look at their own political and social blind spots when it comes to making a policy decision.

We then launched our heritage walks. Through our walks, we hope to emphasise the application of the Constitution in the milieu, to help in witnessing our relationship with it through the history of our cities. Through this we hope to make people feel more rooted in the Constitution and not just approach it as an abstraction.

Due to the pandemic, we were forced to move a lot of our activity online. Through social media and other collaborations we aimed to view the Constitution through different lenses. One of our collaborations with Art and Charlie titled “Art and the Constitution” explored the art within the Constitution and the different perspectives that contributed to it. Another collaboration was for Dalit History Month, with various Dalit creators and students. Our aim here was two-fold: to platform Dalit voices in a space where politically and socially they have been denied and to explore what form and meaning the Constitution had in the imagination of those who have been systemically denied these rights.

Our podcast, Contested Nation, launched in collaboration with Suno India, seeks to explore the stories behind the Constitution, how what we have right now came about and its connection with various contemporary issues. We use the story-telling format, weaving interviews, speeches and songs to tell the story of India. We have combined the narrative and conversational format by inviting various guests who can provide more insight into the problems. Through the podcast, we have explored various topics like the idea of revolution and dissent, the contours of love and desire, Pakistan’s constitutional journey, the Gandhian Constitution in Aundh, citizenship itself in the context of the Partition and the NRC in Assam and Manipur. In the episode, “Love and Desire”, we analyse these two concepts that have not even once been mentioned in the Constitution but form the basis of our social structure. We examine the role of community in our expression of love and desire and how the law interacts with, and dictates, it. Another interesting episode is one where we explore Pakistan’s constitutional and political journey. This episode sheds light on how socio-political changes impact the constitution and the role that it plays in society.

The root of democracy is in its power sharing arrangements. However, the root of the sentiment of constitutional morality, in a deeply divided society like ours, is in finding the thread of fraternity and empathy for our history.


About the author: Shruti is the founder of The Equals Project, an initiative that explores constitutional history and nation building. Shruti is a graduate of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore

About the author: Hananya, a 5th year law student at Tamil Nadu National Law University, is curious about the intricacies of lawmaking and envisions a world of transformative justice. They hope to explore the processes behind the everyday and its interaction with the law.


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