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The Indian Constitution as an Illusion

In the recent past, a lot has been written about the Indian Constitution, not just commentaries on the cases, but on the social and cultural background and the impact of the Constitution.

Gautam Bhatia’s ‘Transformative Constitution‘ traces the living and breathing nature of the Constitution through 9 cases. Madhav Khosla in ‘India’s Founding Moment‘ talks about how the story of the Constitution surviving in a country where self-rule was thought to be impossible.

Tripurdaman Singh, in his book ‘Sixteen Stormy Days‘ talks about the story behind the First Amendment to the Constitution. There are many more books to add to the list. In this post, I’ll be talking about an interesting passage I came across in Rohit De’s phenomenal book, ‘A People’s Constitution‘.

A People's Constitution Cover
A People’s Constitution

In ‘A People’s Constitution’ Rohit De discusses the Constitution and how it impacted the lives of the people; drawing attention to less talked about aspects such as alcohol prohibition, prostitution, and commodity regulation.

These haven’t been discussed as much as, say, land reforms and freedom of press. In the beginning, he gives us various flavours of the Constitution, such as how some view the Constitution was a triumph, but to some the Constitution is an illusion. To show us how it is an illusion, he recounts ‘Naya Kanoon’ (New Constitution), a short story written by Sadat Hasan Manto.

Sadat Hasan Manto has been a controversial author, having battled several obscenity cases for his stories. An eponymous movie made on his life, portrays his battles with the establishment, in the backdrop of partition of India. Interestingly, in one of his trials, the Magistrate fined Manto Rs. 25 for one of his stories, letting him go with a slap on the wrist.

Manto was surprised when he heard that the Magistrate was a fan of his. He asked the Magistrate why he punished him, if he was liked his stories. The magistrate smiled and said he would respond to that later. He couldn’t respond while Manto lived, but penned his encounter afterwards. You can read his response here. (Notice the difference in Manto’s account of the case, and the Magistrate’s.)

Manto film poster
Manto Film Poster (2018)

Naya Kanoon paints a dark picture, but like all his stories, is poignantly written. Here is the extract from Rohit De’s book:

The protagonist of the story, Ustaad Mangu, is a tanga (horse-drawn cart) driver in Lahore, a classic sub-altern figure who is aware and excited about the buzz on the street about the passage of the Government of India Act of 1935, which promised to bring greater self-government to Indians. Throughout the story Mangu is elated at the passing of the new act, and he imagines that it will send the Englishmen “scurrying back into their holes.” On the day the act is promulgated, Mangu is assaulted by an English customer for daring to ask for a high fare. Mangu retali-ates by landing blows upon the surprised Englishman and shouting, “Well, sonny boy, it is our Raj now. . . . Those days are gone, friends, when they ruled the roost. There is a new constitution now, fellows, a new constitution.” Mangu is surprised to find himself seized by two policemen, who drag him away to the police station. The story closes with the following lines: “All along the way, and even inside the station, he kept screaming, ‘New constitution, new constitution!’ but nobody paid any attention to him. ‘New constitution, new constitution! What rubbish are you talking? It’s the same old constitu-tion.’ And he was locked up.

Rohit De talks about the reason for comparing the Constitution with the story, saying that two-thirds of the Indian Constitution is “identically reproduced” from the Government of India Act of 1935.

However, that isn’t the only angle to interpreting the Constitution. There is much to read about the circumstances in which the Constitution came in place, how it affected people, and how the document can be improved.

As pointed out in this book, “The Indian Constitution is the longest surviving constitution in the post-colonial world.” There are many lawyers who believe that the Constitution breathed a new life to the country (those viewing it as a ‘triumph’).

In the coming posts we will explore these books more, to understand the history and the impact of the Constitution.

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