By Pradip Phanjoubam
Actor and social activist Rahul Bose’s mission of interpreting the idea of India will come across as exciting to academics grappling with the elusive idea, as much as to politicians eager to give shape to the idea as they see it. For Bose, this is an odyssey in the vast ocean of the Indian constitution. What is even more fascinating about this exploration is, Bose is not so much concerned with the operative part of the constitution, but with the spirit of it encapsulated in the preamble. “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens: Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; And to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation; In our constituent assembly this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this constitution.”
In the 68th year of its independence and 65th since it became a republic, having given itself a new constitution to replace the Government of India Act, 1935, even the constitution itself has undergone several changes, having seen 121 amendments. The idea of India somewhat remains contested on the political arena, as evidenced by the swings of the fortunes of political parties with different ideas of India, but the question is, has the original idea of India, so much rooted in liberal humanism, been rendered unsteady and amorphous. When things get too complicated, it is always helpful to go back to the basics. And the Indian constitution’s very basic is its preamble which declares Indian would be a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic,” making the individual citizen, the ultimate sovereign.
Would this common, consensual, democratic will of the people guarantee justice if the largely impoverished and the illiterate masses to be given franchise? A question which haunted Western democracies for centuries was boldly discarded by India in its existential plunge over half a century ago, giving every adult the right to vote, a phenomenon many Western observers watched with amazement and some even predicted doom, as did journalist and academic, Neville Maxwell in 1956 covering the run up to India’s first general election. The idea of India survived to yet redefine the universal understanding of democracy itself, though with many battle scars and aberrations, a painful process which chroniclers of Indian history after 1947, such as Sunil Khilnani and Ramachandra Guha, have been endeavouring to give intellectual coherence. In Many ways, Bose’s enterprise is to give substance to these liberal ideas of India.
“In such a vast country as India, our effort is to bridge the gulf between the core and the peripheries,” Bose said in an interview in Imphal recently. “The idea is to bring changes in attitudes and understanding in both, so that accommodation and adjustment to each other’s uniqueness result. In this process both change and tend towards a broader common denominator,” Bose explained further.
Since Bose’s idea of India is nuanced, and not always confined by the constitutional definition of the Indian citizen, or the nationalism associated with the idea, a little more on this preface may be essential for a better understanding of the project itself. Bose says “we want to make the idea of India and its generous spirit, become the bridge that connects all Indians.”
The constitution of India was written at a time India was most insecure. The traumatic partition had just happened, and there was absolutely no guarantee that the new nation would not Balkanise further. The prospect before the newly decolonised nation was to yoke together more than 560 Princely States, many of them, including Junagadh, Travancore, Kashmir, Hyderabad, Manipur… not wanting to join the Indian Union. While the preamble of the constitution can afford to be a poetic visualisation of the idea of ideal India, the operative parts of the text of the constitution had to reflect this insecurity of the time.
Few have been as articulate and lucid in pointing this out than Fali S. Nariman. The drama is contained in the first three articles of the constitution. The first article reads: “India, that is Bharat, will be a union of states.” Nariman says this is the only indication in the entire constitution that India is to be a federation. Otherwise, there is absolutely no mention of the words federal or federalism or federation, indicating an anxiety about the notion of federalism. The second article leaves provisions for the Indian state to incorporate more territories other than bequeathed by the British on August 15, 1947, indicating the founding fathers considered the idea of India still an incomplete project at the time. The foresight proved prophetic and it was by this article that Sikkim was absorbed into India in 1975. But it is the third article which startles. In Nariman’s words, it is the textual refutation of the first article. It empowers the Union to split, merge, change boundaries, change names of the states etc, with or without the consent of the states. This is a warning to rebelling provinces, in particular the Princely States, that if they do not behave, the Union can tear them into parts, merge them to another, abolish them, or even change their names. No federal intent here.
Nariman’s campaign was for making India truly federal, and in his earlier deliberations, he was almost militantly opposed to some of the features of the Indian constitution which he says diminish the federal spirit of the preamble. These include Article 3, the Commission of Inquiry Act 1952 which empowers the Union to institute inquiry into the functioning of the states, the provision of “eminent domain” which also empowers the Union to acquire land in any state, some of the powers given to the Governors etc. He was particular opposed to Article 3, which he says is a shameful legacy of an insecure past, and should be abolished without further delay. In his latter articles, and in his latest book “The State of the Nation”, he is still opposed to these features but has visibly sobered in the recommendations he makes. Since amending the basic features of the constitution has been made virtually impossible after the Emergency experience, he now has reconciled to allowing these features to remain, but only as brooding archival reminders of the country once insecure past, but never again to be used in the present or the future.
Bose’s project also has reminiscences of this brooding spirit against the features of the idea of India which has gone against the ideals it set for itself. Constitutionally if there is a widening difference in the perception of what federalism should be in India, there is a reciprocal rift in the spirit of India, between the included and excluded. This rift between the two Indias is what Bose’s organisation, The Foundation, has taken upon itself to bridge. The intervention targets therefore are the peripheries of Indian nationhood. “We want to bridge these regions, isolated and forgotten for various reasons, geography, politics, culture, poverty, education or whatever else, with core India.” True to this objective, the declared credo of the foundation is to see a world free of discrimination of all forms”. The instrument fashioned to execute this project is REACH, (Restoring Equality through Education and Advancement of Children) an education outreach programme “which provides full scholarships for students from areas that are infrastructurally disadvantaged due to geography or history to the most appropriate schools of the highest standard,” reads the foundation’s own brief of the REACH initiative on its website.
The Foundation seeks to establish democratic, secular, non-discriminatory bondages between what is core India and its peripheral regions. It seeks to do this by extending a profusion of goodwill to the deprived peripheries. And towards this, it sponsors six underprivileged children each from a target peripheral state to study in the best schools and colleges in India and see the child through to the completion of education and beginning of a career. It began this initiative in Andaman and Nicobar Island in 2007. Four years later, in 2011 it took it to Kashmir. This year, it has chosen Manipur as its third target state, and the search is already on to identify the most deserving six children.
“These six children will have to be from families with incomes less than Rs. 15,000 a month, have scored 60 percent in class exams and they will have to get through the screening process of the foundation,” Bose said. “In the case of Manipur, they will also have to be at least 12 years of age, as the law here does not permit children below this age be sent outside the state, in view of the increasing cases of trafficking,” he added.
“They will also have to be in love with Manipur. The foundation’s intent is not providing an escape opportunity, but a social investment that these children would someday come back as young adults and be the catalysts of change in their home states,” he added.
“In REACH one and two in Andaman and Kashmir, we discovered the connections we establish go far deeper than just the six students making friends with other children in their schools. Parents too establish connections, and we have had three families of school friends visiting the families of the Kashmiri students,” Bose said with the pride of an achiever.
“The screening process is long and elaborate. All tests are designed to identify creativity and generosity of spirit. An expert team will be looking not just for leadership qualities in the children, but also the equally important quality of integrity and humility” Bose said.
The foundation raises its funds from auctions of priceless artefacts donated by internationally renowned personalities, such as Roger Federer, Sachin Tendulkar, Raghu Rai, Abhinav Bindra, Amitav Ghosh etc. “Federer donated his shoes from the Cincinnati Open in 2010, Bindra his Olympic gold winning rifle etc. We were able to raise, Rs. 2 crore last year from these auctions. Approximately we spend about Rs. 5 lakh a student in a year and with the increase in the number of students, the overheads are rising. The target is 200 students in the decades ahead,” Bose explained.
The organisation’s brief sketch of the Manipur Scholarship Initiative, says it “offers students from Manipur a full educational scholarship from std. VII to std. XII in New Era High School, a residential school in Panchgani, Maharashtra. After passing standard XII, the scholarship will be further extended upto employability post an overall evaluation at the time. The Foundation will bear all academic, boarding, lodging, travel (to and from Manipur twice a year) and all miscellaneous living costs of the children while in school including the travel expenses for all parents to visit the children at New Era High School twice a year for the first year and once thereafter.”
It welcomes candidates and guardians to query at Email: [email protected] and at Phone: 0385-2421366.
Now for a little anecdotal account. I had gone to meet Bose after I was told a little of his Manipur Initiative by a journalist friend. I did not know who he was, but was keen to meet someone who had such immense drive. During the course of the interview I even asked him quite irreverently what he does for a living. Bose explained he was an actor. When I returned home, I casually mentioned my meeting with Bose to my 12 year old daughter, and to my surprise, she screamed and asked if it would be possible for me to get her his autograph. When a staff of The Foundation offered to do the needful, my elder daughter found out what her younger sister would be in possession of, and she too screamed at me that she was not around when I told her sister about the Bose visit. Wow! I felt like a discarded piece of antique furniture, gathering cobwebs in a forlorn corner of the family attic.