When I was a child, 15 August and 26 January were like Siamese twins: lookalikes who were even otherwise indistinct; born like twins are, one following the other. We celebrated them similarly too, with school assembly and singing of patriotic songs, which blared on loudspeakers as we ventured to school and back. On those days, Bhagat Singh and Manoj Kumar popped up in the manner of seasonal heroes, and I hummed “mera rang de basanti chola” because even AIR’s Urdu Service favored the song. Only in secondary school did I begin to glean that much like the judwa Ram-Sham, the diwases Gantantra and Swatantrata, were actually unlike each other and stood for different things.
In Civics I learnt that 26 January marks Republic Day when the constitution of India came into effect in 1950. Three years after Independence Day which came first on 15 August 1947. Was India therefore not a Republic (Gantantra) in those 2.5 years between the two historic days? No, not officially. Those years were when India, led by the fierce scholar Dr Ambedkar, was crafting a constitution which would effectively serve a multilingual, multi religious, multi ethnic, ancient civilization such as India that had newly transitioned to a modern independent nation. In keeping with the complexity of the task at hand, the Constitution of India is the world’s longest. (No, now’s not the time to faint.) To ensure that the average citizen of India knew exactly what this long document was all about, its drafters handed us a key, kind of like the one you use when preparing for exams? It’s called the Preamble, a simple 1-pager that you can, and are indeed expected to, know by heart. I do.
Along with poems, ghazals, certain Hindi songs, the Preamble is one of those things I recite to myself as I walk — if you’re surprised, go hasten to read it for the power and poetry of its words. Recently, I was trudging through Central Park after days of incessant snow. As I walked, I kept an eye out for shiny patches of ice which will have you splayed out on the ground faster than a banana peel. The sun shone bright, its incandescence lighting up the field of snow like halogen. A fellow walker and I fell into conversation, and as happens with New Yorkers nowadays, we were soon talking about Trump and his calamitous presidency. We bemoaned his misogyny, buffoonery, chicanery, greed, his disregard for science and global warming, his bigotry and small mindedness and those small hands… Yup, we covered most everything that’s bothering us. As we came to a fork where our paths diverged, we paused, my companion forlorn as he shrugged: But what do we do?
A 71-year-old Jewish gentleman who loved the Beatles and Sai Baba in his youth (I had learnt), his big concern was the world he was leaving for his grandchildren and all the other children. What can we do, he reiterated.
I stuck my chin out and said, Exactly what we did now. We talk.
We talk to state our opinion. We talk to make sure we are heard. We talk to enable those who want to talk to know that yes, while we do not burn buses or lynch folks or rabble rouse, we are a community of people who believe fiercely in the premise that all human beings are created equal. A precept that is the foundation on which rests the world’s oldest (US) democracy and the world’s largest (India). A premise that is declared in the Preamble to the Constitution of India, and is meant to be upheld by all citizens of India. That is exactly what Bhagat Singh, our favorite martyr — oh so young, so heroic! — exemplified: Zindgi to apne damm par hi jeeyee jaati hai, dusron ke kandhe par toh shirf janaaze uthaye jaate hai. We live life on our terms, shoulders of others are handy for funeral processions.
In these perilous times when the Constitution is being mistaken for Cowstitution, by-hearting the Preamble is the first independent step you can take. Then, start talking.
Happy Republic Day, folks — India’s looking at you! (Try not to fail her.)