People are embracing the Constitution

People are embracing the Constitution

Articles of Faith

Alok Prasanna Kumar argues that Harry Potter is science fiction and Star Wars is fantasy Alok.P.Kumar

Jaipal Singh Munda, whose birth anniversary it was last week, is one of the most remarkable figures of 20th century India. Born in an Adivasi family in a village in what is now Jharkhand, he went on to captain India’s hockey team to an Olympic Gold Medal, cleared the Indian Civil Service examinations, served as foreign secretary to the State of Bikaner, and was a member of the Constituent Assembly that drafted India’s constitution.

Munda is a giant of Indian history and politics who has been forgotten, like Babasaheb Ambedkar was for a brief while, in the larger national consciousness and reduced to a leader of just the people he represented -- the Adivasis of Jharkhand. Like Ambedkar, he deserves to be remembered, read and engaged with by everyone if we have to truly understand what the Constitution of India means to its people. He was a relentless and passionate campaigner for Adivasi rights in the Constituent Assembly, bringing a unique perspective that challenged and questioned the mainstream understanding of Adivasi society that was still beholden to colonial constructs.

His very first speech in the Constituent Assembly, in 1946, was a stunner. He said:

“Sir, I am proud to be a jungli. That is the name by which we are known in my part of the country. As a jungli, as an Adivasi, I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. You cannot teach Democracy to the tribal people: you have to learn democratic ways from them. They are the most democratic people on earth.”

I’m only quoting a part of it and cannot go through all of his interventions in the Constituent Assembly in this column, but two things stand out from this one passage alone: one, a challenge to the dominant notion of Adivasis being “uncivilized” and reclaiming the term jungli as a badge to be worn with pride; two, a contrast to Ambedkar’s own view expressed later in the Constituent Assembly that “...democracy in India is a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”

Why is this important?

The Constitution of India has extensive provisions to protect the Adivasis across the length and breadth of the country but specifically in the Chhota Nagpur plateau area (the Fifth Schedule) and the North-East (the Sixth Schedule) (thanks once again to Munda’s contributions). These are not patronizing concessions made by the mainstream to those on the margins out of pity or charity. These are the hard-won freedoms of peoples who felt that their way of life was in no way inferior to anyone else’s in the country and that they should be free to lead their lives without undue interference.

This is just a variant of a core idea of constitutionalism -- that the State’s power over the people is limited and restricted and the Constitution does not prescribe any one way of life as an ideal or alone worthy of protection.

All of this was brought to the fore once again as the BJP was trounced in the recent Jharkhand assembly elections. The Raghubar Das government’s attempt to undo the legal protections Adivasis enjoyed over their forests and lands was met with widespread protests. One form of protest was the Pathalgadi movement. It consisted of Adivasis carving onto rocks outside their villagers the provisions of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution -- as a warning to the government. It drew from both the ancient Adivasi tradition of honouring one’s ancestors through such stones, and the very modern invocation of a written constitution as a guarantor of rights and privileges to citizens.

As is the BJP’s wont, the Raghubar Das government in Jharkhand charged them all with sedition.

The story had a happy-ish ending since the first decision taken by the new Hemant Soren government was to withdraw all sedition charges against those who were part of the Pathalgadi movement and to promise not to interfere with the laws protecting Adivasi rights.

The legacy of Jaipal Singh Munda and the Pathalgadi movement is a reminder, if any were needed, that the Constitution belongs to the people of India. While lawyers, judges, politicians and academics may debate its finer meaning and operation, each section of Indian society has found a way to make it its own. What we are seeing with the protests against the CAA and NRC is a continuation of a long and proud tradition that would have made the framers of the Constitution know that it is in safe hands.

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