‘It is a people’s constitution... made by people like you and me’: Vinay Kumar

Published : Mar 29, 2024 13:41 IST - 14 MINS READ

The founder emphasises that one must understand the essence of the document and its importance in our everyday lives to build a constitutional culture and preserve its ideas.

The founder emphasises that one must understand the essence of the document and its importance in our everyday lives to build a constitutional culture and preserve its ideas. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

‘Reclaim Constitution’ initiative’s creator asserts that the Constitution isn’t owned by lawyers, politicians, or judges, but by all Indians.

The Indian constitution, the longest-written constitution in the world, has a tremendous impact on the lives of its citizens. The Constitution, today, is being taken for granted with people making loose comments on the document and disregarding the values it propagates. In an interview with Frontline, Vinay Kumar, the founder of the “Reclaim Constitution” project, aims to address the prevalent ignorance of constitutional values. He discusses the need for constitutional literacy and ideas for reviving constitutional culture.

In an interview with Frontline, Vinay Kumar, the founder of the “Reclaim Constitution” project, aims to address the prevalent ignorance of constitutional values. | Video Credit: Interview by Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed , Camera by Team Arasu Creations, Edited by Samson Ronald K

Vinay Kumar is an activist and also an aerospace engineer. He has initiated a very interesting project called “Reclaim Constitution,” which he began on Republic Day last year. The project aims to propagate the message and ideas of the Constitution, addressing the prevalent ignorance about it. Vinay is passionate about correcting this. So, how do you juggle both of these roles? Being an aerospace engineer is undoubtedly demanding, and being a full-time activist, constantly advocating for various issues, requires considerable dedication.

It’s always a pleasure to keep talking about something that you’re passionate about. And right now, I feel very strongly about the Constitution and what’s happening around it, and the general engagement of people with it. Well, you could call me an activist, but given the connotations the word ‘activist’ carries these days, I would rather say I’m more of an active citizen. More than an activist. But yeah, that’s just some label. But I see this as just an extension of my work. I don’t see my profession as something very different from the other activities I’m engaged in, particularly with the Constitution. So, I think the Constitution is part of our existence on this land; it plays an important role in defining who we are as a people and how we live, or how we aspire to live as a society. Confusion is there in our lives every day. But it’s so matter of fact that we’ve taken it for granted. Today, it’s largely seen as something of a document that belongs to lawyers, judges, the government, bureaucracy, and those kinds of people. But we need not delve too deep into understanding the Constitution to realise that this notion is false. If you look at the very first three words of our Constitution, it says ‘We the people of India’. So the Constitution was made by us, the people. And the Preamble, which I regard like most other scholars do, as the soul of this Constitution, ends with the lines ‘we give to ourselves, this Constitution’. So nowhere in the Preamble of the Constitution of India would you find mention of a government, political party, or even the judiciary or any of those pillars of democracy, right? It is a people’s constitution. It’s a people’s document as well, made by people like you and me. If you look at the background of the people who made this Constitution, after an arduous freedom struggle that stretched over centuries, and generations of people who sacrificed their lives for the people to be able to make this Constitution, you realise that this is as close to each one of us as it’s just people from various walks of life who came in to build this constitution.

It’s interesting that you mentioned how important this document is in our daily lives. We’ve somehow taken it for granted, ignorant of its significance, right? That’s why the work you’re doing is commendable. You’re trying to bring it to ordinary people, those who wouldn’t typically engage with the Constitution, making them aware of its message and importance. As part of this effort, you conduct workshops and outreach programs across different segments of society. Also, you’ve developed an intriguing set of postcards, actually two sets. Let’s discuss the first set, which was launched last year on Republic Day, if I’m not mistaken. Yes, I was one of the first to buy those postcards. What I loved about them is the original artwork from the Constitution. Could you talk about the significance of this artwork in the context of the first set of postcards? Because when we read the Constitution or search for specific sections online, we don’t usually encounter the artwork. I’d love to hear more about this.

This project was largely triggered by my ignorance about things around us, and I felt it. I felt a sense of obligation towards the Constitution, to communicate what it means, and what I’ve learned about it. The trigger was sometime during 2019 when protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act broke out across the country and the world. We had students in universities talking about the Constitution of India, and with good reason, the very idea of what it means to be an Indian citizen was being changed. For the first time, I think, in a public conversation, you could see the Preamble being part of news articles every other day; it’s in the paper, and people are talking about the Preamble. It got me curious as to why. “Why are people doing this? What is this document?”

The last time I read about it in any detail was in school for civics classes, and I boasted that it is, like I mentioned, becoming so obvious that you would, and we’ve taken it for granted. That led me to ask a few friends of mine who were lawyers to help me explain and understand what was happening. Why are people talking about the Constitution every day, right? And why suddenly, almost seven decades after it was formed? Why is it in everyday conversation now? That was when friends of mine from the Alternative Law Forum, Arvind Narrain and Poorna, suggested that we talk to people who are not lawyers and try to have conversations around the Constitution.

In one of those sessions, I realised that it was largely for people who are non-lawyers, where lawyers are trying to explain the Constitution and its making. I had this realisation that the language that lawyers have been using is something that they’re so comfortable with. And even for them, it was a struggle to communicate that in a language that the masses would understand. That’s when we took upon ourselves that group challenge to actually convert all the lessons and understanding into more easily consumable forms of information like cartoons, memes, and songs. In one search exploration, I stumbled upon this beautiful artwork in the original copy of our Constitution. When I started researching a little more into the history of that artwork, it was just a treasure trove of documents that I stumbled upon, and I realised that these artists were commissioned to decorate our Constitution and were also part of the freedom struggle in their own way.

Here you are, if you try to put yourself around 15th August 1947, you have a free country, and you’re suddenly enjoying freedoms that you’ve never enjoyed, or for most of your life, thought you’d never have. Most freedom fighters never imagined that they’d live to see a free India, but yet they fought. It’s an expression of their freedom and joy is what I felt. That’s how I interpreted this artwork. They have tried to capture 4000 years of history of civilisation on this land, even before it was called India. It’s a very challenging task to cover the diverse history of our land. I think they’ve done a great job of leaving us a prominent artifact there for us to understand the emotions of the freedom fighters and the freedom struggle, which all went into the Constitution. The spirit of the freedom struggle is captured in the Constitution, and I think it is the artwork that boldly showcases it.

Because if you look at the text of the Constitution, it’s a living document; it is amended every year, and every government can amend it. Like how the makers of this Constitution had envisioned that the future electorate will elect people who will make this Constitution better. That was the expectation. And that is par for the course. So the text will be amended anyway. So if you look at the original document, you also realise that permanent things, in a sense, are the artwork. When I realised that many people are not aware that we’ve had this book of our Constitution beautifully decorated, it is one of the longest-written constitutions in the world. I think it was fitting to have it decorated in the manner in which it has been, and I felt that this needs to be showcased. So that more and more people see this and will be able to appreciate the effort that has gone into it.

Why postcards? I’d say the inspiration was from the German couple that handles who, in the Nazi era of Germany, used postcards to communicate to people, to talk to people about inspiring people to stand up against injustice. Somewhere I could sense that in today’s world of social media and minuscule attention spans, having a personal touch is a way to get across this message to people, and hence these postcards with the artwork, hoping that people will feel that they are carrying a part of the original Constitution.

And I think, aesthetically, you’ve achieved the result. And partly because of that, this has become so popular, right? I mean, sought after, and again, we see aesthetics in your second set of postcards. Coming to these viewers, those who are curious about what this is, this is a little model of the 15 women who are part of the Constituent Assembly. But the second set of postcards that Vinay has come up with are on the founding mothers of the— I mean, because they are part of the constituent assembly— it is perhaps appropriate that we call them the founding mothers. Can you talk a little bit about the second set of postcards?

So this is a recent production, largely inspired by a seminal book by Achyut Chetan called ‘The Founding Mothers of the Indian Republic’. Until then, until the release of this book, the stories of the women who were part of the making of our Constitution were lost in the pages of history. There were hardly one or two women. Even in my school, I just read about a couple of them— Sarojini Naidu and Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, and beyond that, I had no clue about the fact that there were so many women who were instrumental in shaping our Constitution. The rest of the artwork in the Constitution, I think this is also a story that needed to be told. Most academic works are very useful to bring out the facts, and the dissemination and building of a culture around this are also equally important if we have to reach out to the masses. I would say this is in line with the constitutional morality that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar spoke about in the Constitution as being the constituent assembly. He remarks that democracy is essentially a top dressing on soil, which is inherently undemocratic, because of the kind of social divisions that we’ve had for thousands of years. He says that it is essential for us to build a constitutional morality, which is not inherent in our culture. And the idea of building a constitutional culture stems from there.

So what is constitutional culture? It is not just about understanding what Article 15 or Article 21 is; that you could perhaps call constitutional literacy. But to build a constitutional culture means that you understand the spirit of the Constitution, you know what is the essence of this document, how it interacts with us, and how it is important for us in our everyday lives. That, I think, is what can be called constitutional culture. Now, building culture requires various attempts in various forms of communication. And one such attempt was to use these doors and talk about the 15 women through doors, and hopefully attract young students to understand their contribution to the making of this country.

I came to one of the exhibitions during Dasara, where you displayed these dolls as part of the Dasara Gombe, the Dasara dolls exhibition, so somehow you linked it to the local culture of Karnataka, and I saw a tremendous response. There was curiosity. So I think you should be happy and proud that the agenda that you’ve set for yourself, you achieved it.

It is nothing unusual. It’s just a revival of a culture that already existed, I feel. If you’ve seen Dasara dolls in the past, they would invariably feature a set of freedom fighters. And, of course, you’d have the more popular figures there. But the women were missing. So, that is when we thought as a team. Reclaim Constitution is no longer just one person. We are a team of doctors, scientists, and recently we’ve had one lawyer, along with people from various walks of life who are part of the team. It’s a collective effort now. And we thought, why not celebrate the Constitution, which is now in its 75th year? The 75th year of our independence was celebrated with such fervor, and we found that the Constitution lacked that kind of celebration. Why not use this chance to build a new culture or revive culture, I would say— Dasara on the theme of our Constitution, and specifically highlighting the words in our Preamble. We are democratic, we are secular, and we are trying to build fraternity through these events.

The Constitution perhaps has not been accepted by everyone who lives in the country. It’s a provocative statement. But why do I say this? Because two weeks ago, Anantkumar Hegde, the Lok Sabha member— he is from the BJP, is a Lok Sabha member, he represents Uttara Kannada, the border district of Karnataka. So he made a rather controversial statement, which went like this: while appealing to voters to vote for the BJP, he said, “It is important that you give us more than 400 seats so that we can rectify,” he used this word specifically, “rectify the Constitution.” So what do you have to say about that?

These statements come from people who’ve had no role in the freedom struggle and the making of our Constitution. So it’s very easy for such people to talk about the Constitution very loosely, not understanding the value of the freedoms that we enjoy. And those who subscribe to constitutional values also have sort of taken it for granted. Because, you know, the freedoms that we are enjoying today have come to us for free; we have inherited this beautiful document from our freedom fighters. And since it has come for free, do we really understand its value, is the question. Hence, at this point in this country’s history, people are talking loosely about this document and making provocative statements, hinting at wanting to change this Constitution. But I’d say that if you look at the facts and understand the history of the struggle that went into making this country, anyone who looks at the facts will understand that this is a very precious document. And this is something that needs to be nurtured, engaged with, and preserved. Some of these statements could also be for the sake of political games now that the elections are coming up. So I would say it gives even more reason for people to understand the Constitution and what it means, especially the history of the struggle that went into making this Constitution. And I’m sure anybody who reads that would know what they have to do to preserve this Constitution. I’d like to go back to the words of the makers of this Constitution when they were asked whether this is a good constitution or a bad constitution in 1950 when the Constitution was adopted, so I’ll just quote… Hansa Mehta said that on the floor of this house, and even outside questions have been asked about whether this constitution is good, and how long it is going to last. So she says, “It is very difficult to reply to this question. The goodness or badness of a constitution depends on how it’s going to work. If it works in the interest of the people, it will be a good constitution, if it works otherwise, it will be a bad constitution.

So it is for the future electorate to elect the right kind of people who will work the Constitution in the best interest of the people. And therefore the responsibility lies with the people.” And I’d like to add here, that the people who made this Constitution did not make it just for themselves. They thought about us, they’re speaking to us through this document. And it’s like an umbilical cord to our freedom struggle. Right? That’s the only connection we have right now when most of our freedom fighters are gone; they are not around. How else would the future generation understand what it meant to build this country? I think it is the Constitution which carries the spirit of the freedom struggle that conveys those ideas and should inspire this generation and the future generation to preserve the Constitution.

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