Composite culture and its discontents

Print edition : September 01, 2017

Dr Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly of India, signing a copy of the new Constitution of the Indian Republic at the Constituent Assembly Hall in New Delhi. Photo: THE HINDU archives

Dr B.R. Ambedkar with the members of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly. From left, N. Madhva Rao, Saiyid Muhammad Saadulla, Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar and the constitutional adviser, Benegal Narsing Rau. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The Constituent Assembly during one of its debates. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The evolution of a composite culture reached its zenith during the independence movement, which found its expression in the Constitution. The Sangh Parivar has expressed its unhappiness with this Constitution from time to time.

HOW much Indian is India’s Constitution? This question is raised by a few on the basis of an allegation that the constitutionalism based on the value of composite culture is alien to Indian traditions and civilisation. Recently, there has been a call from some quarters to frame a substantially different and new Constitution on a purported tradition, culture or religion. This bogey is flogged to life by some now and then.

Last year, Ram Bahadur Rai, a senior Hindi journalist who is the Chairman of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) and a former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP) general secretary asserted in an interview with Pragya Singh of Outlook (June 13, 2016) that the present Constitution is “a new testament of our gulaami (slavery)”. He also desired that the 16th Lok Sabha should be converted into a Constituent Assembly to draw up a new Constitution.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has been unhappy with this Constitution and had wanted it to be replaced by Manusmriti (Codes of Manu). Organizer in an editorial (“The Constitution”) on November 30, 1949, specifically expressed it and wrote: “The worst about the new constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it.” M.S. Golwalkar, who was the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS (1940-1973), had expressed similar sentiments in his Bunch of Thoughts (1966), stating that our Constitution has “absolutely nothing, which can be called our own” and that it contained some lame principles drawn from the United Nations Charter and some features from the American and British Constitutions which have been “just brought together in a mere hotchpotch”.

Before and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, there have been instances of booklets being released denouncing the Constitution as “anti-Hindu” and putting forward a prototype of the kind of Constitution visualised by them. On January 14, 1993, RSS leader Rajendra Singh in an interview to Indian Express called for a new Constitution more suited to the ethos and genius of this country since India’s was “not a composite culture”.

Human race as a whole and each civilisation individually have been evolving a few core values as universal values. These were derived from all their constituent cultures and subcultures, including the little ones, through a process of mutual cross-pollination. At the same time, with a few exceptions, even unpopular cultures and their values were permitted and promoted unless they were diametrically opposed to a few publicly accepted universal values. India was no exception and our Constitution is based on the ideal of such a composite culture evolved gradually from very ancient times.

In Article 51A(f) of the Constitution, we have declared a solemn fundamental duty of every citizen to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture. This was the result of an amendment in 1977, but it did not add anything new, reiterating what was already expressed throughout various provisions of the Constitution. For example, with regard to the duty to develop the Hindi language, Article 351 requires the Union to see that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of “the composite culture of India”.

A constitutionalism based on a few universal objectives flowing from the composite culture of India was at the root of the framing of the Constitution. This is exemplified in the words of Dr Rajendra Prasad in the Constituent Assembly: “I will request ….(all) now to stand in their places…”. He was addressing the members of the Constituent Assembly as its President. The Assembly had gathered to frame the Constitution for independent India. India had not yet become independent; nor had it suffered the tragic partition. The Assembly consisted of great persons who represented almost all the different sections and groups in India. Thus, at the threshold of framing the Constitution, the founding mothers and fathers wanted to try whether they could agree on the values and objectives of the Constitution to be framed. This was called the Objectives Resolution. After detailed debate and discussion, the resolution was ready to be passed on January 22, 1947. The members wanted to send a message to posterity on the importance they attached to it. Hence, they decided to pass the resolution, all the members standing.

Thus, at the outset of the framing of the Indian Constitution, the centrality of our composite culture was categorically stressed and declared. The declaration of these composite values as the objectives resolution with a few changes found place in the Constitution when it was finally framed—the Preamble of the Constitution of India.

Sheel and success

More than 4,600 years before the passing of the Objectives Resolution, there was an important occasion which stressed the centrality of composite culture in the theory of governance. We find the narrative in this occasion as an anecdote repeated throughout the history of this subcontinent. The time was pre-Vedic. It certainly came from the collective memory of two distinct groups of peoples and cultures— devas and daityas, or aryas and asuras.

Sheel (virtuous character) consisting of universal values of non-violence ( adroha), compassion ( anugraha) and charity ( danam) came to be accepted by both daityas and devas ( aryas and asuras) as the key to successful and good governance. From the time of the initial rivalry between Aryans and non-Aryans, sheel was considered to be the secret of the success of a king and his governance (Mahabharata 12 (Shantiparva):124:66).

Prahlada, the leader of the asuras, could win the battle over Indra, the leader of aryas, on the strength of the sheel consisting of these values. Indra could win over Prahlada only when Indra could obtain this sheel from Prahlada. This is quoted in Mahabharata as being narrated by Dhritarashtra to his son Duryodhana, the eldest of Kauravas. The importance of sheel as the key to a king’s success being the composite theory of both devas and daityas has been highlighted from the earliest available narratives belonging to the collective memory of our composite culture of this subcontinent. Moreover, the three values of non-violence, compassion and charity were considered to be the main constituents of a constitutional governance flowing from the values of dignity and fraternity.

Like similar civilisations of the world, Indian civilisation had accepted some universal values or principles of conduct as central not only to different aspects of human life, but even to nature. This idea of “rita”, which subsequently got morphed into the concept of dharma, included both cosmic law and social law. This dharma is substantially different from the present popular usage of this term to mean religion.

Fourfold duties

When various Vedic and Brahmanic traditions were agreeing on a few values as universal and fundamental, the Sramanic groups were also developing almost identical values as universal. They were preaching a few values as applicable to all people even though they had been questioning and rejecting some of the values that were being followed in Vedic tradition such as the necessity of performing Vedic yagnyas and animal sacrifices. Among the Sramanic groups of the time Parshvanath (872-772 BCE) had preached four supreme values, which he recommended for all, C haturyama Dharma: the fourfold duties ( ahimsa, satya, asteya and aparigraha). During the Upanishadic period, Rishi Gora Angirasa gave the instructions on the fundamental values to Krishna, son of Devaki, to the extent stating that these values are the real essence of the sacrifice or yagnya (Chandogya Upanisad III/17/ 4): “ atha yat tapo danam arjavam ahimsa satya-vacanam iti, ta asya daksinah” (And austerity, alms-giving, uprightness, non-violence, truthfulness, these are the gifts for the priests). Some authors suggested a close relationship between the Sramanic and Upanishadic teachings of a few fundamental universal values.

In Mahabharata, a composite culture evolving from plurality of lifeways is accepted by Krishna when he explains to Arjuna that according to some people dharma (moral values) is derived from Vedas whereas others hold that dharma (moral values) can be known only through reasoning. Krishna states that he does not want to contradict any of them (Mahabharata, Karnaparva:69:58).

Around 600 B.C. a healthy rivalry was apparent among a number of sects, such as the Charvakas, Jainas and Ajivikas, whose doctrines ranged from pure materialism to determinism. This intellectual liveliness was reflected in the eclectic interests of the Mauryan rulers, since it was claimed by the Jainas that Chandragupta was a supporter and there is evidence that Bindusara favoured Ajivikas. The five precepts taught by the Buddha are almost identical to the universal values arrived at in both the Brahmanic and Sramanic traditions.

We also have this ideal of composite culture prescribing universal obligations, duties common to all, that is, as sadharana dharma or sarvesham without any difference of varna or ashrama, profession or stages of life. Thus, we have in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, considered to be of 4th century B.C., that the duties common to all are non-violence ( ahimsa), truthfulness, uprightness, freedom from malice, compassion and forbearance (Arthashastra 1:3;13).

In ancient India, Asoka, the Mauryan king, was one of the famous rulers who established the importance of universal values in the political realm. He used the term dhamma, or dharma, for these universal values and ideals to be followed by everybody.

According to P.V. Kane, almost all the Dharmashastra works prescribe for all varnas a brief code of morals, such as ahimsa, truthfulness, non-stealing (that is, no wrongful taking of another’s property), purity and restraint of senses. Thus, we see in India, there has been a long tradition of agreeing on a few values as universal ones while acknowledging different values followed by different groups and persons. It is safe to infer that this tradition helped us to arrive at a composite culture as the basis for a constitutionalism.

The Dravidian region has given us examples of an evolution of this composite culture. Chitalai Chathanar’s Tamil poem Manimekalai (sixth century C.E.) is remarkable in its comprehensive treatment of the composite culture of that period. Manimekalai is the eponymous story of a south Indian temple dancer and courtesan, Manimekalai. She decides, with her mother Madhavi, to leave her profession and become an ascetic and pursue the virtue of charity.

Chathanar’s descriptions of different world views through Manimekalai make it explicit that the lifeways or sects which were popular at that period were not solely the religious ones in the modern sense, they included major materialist and non-religious ones, like Lokayatas and Bhutavadis. These were in addition to the Nastik, or heterodox, ones like Nirgranthas and Buddhists on the one side and the Vaiseshikas and Samkhyas on the other. Medieval Bhakti movements of the south and the north are the evolved expressions of the secular or pluralistic character of the Indian society evolving a composite culture. All these movements were popular movements, which can rightly be termed as people’s movements.

The Nath Yogi Gorakh, or Gorakhnath, who lived in circa 11th or 12th century, gives examples of the concept of composite culture: By birth [I am] a Hindu, in mature age a Yogi and by intellect a Muslim (Sabadi 14, in Barthwal (ed.) 1960: 6).

Kabir (1450-1520) admonishes both Hindus and Muslims and his verses invite all to embrace the true composite human values:

God has taken many names:/ Names like Allah, Ram, Karim,/ Kesav, Hari, and Hajarat./ Gold may be shaped into rings and bangles./ Isn’t it gold all the same?/ Distinctions are only words we invent/ One does namaz, one does puja./ One has Siva, one Mohammed,/ One has Adam, one Brahma./ Who is a Hindu, who a Turk? /Both must share a single world. /Koran or Vedas, both read their books./ One is a panda, one a mullah. /Each of them bears a separate name,/ But every pot is made from clay (Kabir bijak, Sabda 30 (Kabir, 1982)).

Guru Nanak (1469-1539) gives the call for adhering to composite universal human values forgetting the silly differences between the religions of Hindus and Muslims. For example, we have this famous phrase, “Nobody is Hindu, nobody Turk” ( Hindu turka na koi).

Kanhavat (an epic poem on Krishna) by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, the Sufi poet who is famed for his work Padmavat, is an eloquent example of Islamic contribution to the composite evolution of our constitutional culture as indelibly recorded in popular literature.

This pluralistic evolution of a composite culture reached its zenith during the independence movement, which found its expression in the Constitution. Thus, what our composite culture requires and the Constitution mandates is a regime of relative universality, or “variform universals”, as Lonner (1998) called it, or a pluralist universalism as Bhikhu Parekh advocates or a regime of human rights-sensitive pluralism. This can also be seen as an “overlapping consensus” among differing ideologies and world views.

Mosaic and not a melting pot

The democratic ideal of a composite culture can best be conceptualised as a mosaic and not as a melting pot. In the Minerva Mills case (1980) the Supreme Court said: “India represents a mosaic of humanity consisting of diverse religions, linguistic and caste groups.”

In 2002, the Supreme Court through a Constitution Bench of 11 judges unequivocally reiterated the same in beautiful words in the case of the TMA Pai Foundation: “The one billion population of India consists of six main ethnic groups and 52 major tribes; six major religions and 6,400 castes and sub-castes; 18 major languages and 1,600 minor languages and dialects. The essence of secularism in India can best be depicted if a relief map of India is made in mosaic....” In the same case, Justice Ruma Pal was categorical when she said: “The Constitution as it stands does not proceed on the ‘melting pot’ theory. The Indian Constitution, rather represents a ‘salad bowl’ where there is homogeneity without an obliteration of identity.”

Constitutionalist heritage

According to the great advocate and jurist N.A. Palkhivala, India has developed these constitutional values through her crowded history of 5,000 years. They are essential not only for the rebirth of the Indian nation but also for the re-education of the human race (India’s Priceless Heritage, 1980, pages 38-39). Constitution is not a parchment of paper as Justice H.R. Khanna has put it: “The edifice of nations and national institutions, we should remember, take long to build. Behind them is the story of sweat, blood and tears, of untold suffering and sacrifice; yet they can be destroyed overnight by the banishment of principles or by the selfishness, petty mindedness or folly of men. If the Indian Constitution is our heritage bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers, no less are we, the people of India, the trustees of the values which pulsate within its provisions” ( Making of India’s Constitution, 1981, page 121).

Dr M.P. Raju is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court of India. His latest book, “India’s Constitution: Roots, Values and Wrongs ”, published by Media House, is expected to be released soon.

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