One of the many art installations at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi.
This year on Republic Day the irony of the symbolism will be very hard to miss. The might of the state will be on full display, celebrating the adoption of the Constitution of India that finally made us a republic. Among those who may be watching the proceedings on live television will be a few who had recently participated in the unprecedented protests across the country making a singular demand: safeguard the Constitution, uphold its integrity, allow it to evolve in the spirit it was envisaged.
When the protests took place, or in the case of Jamia Millia Islamia, even before the protests could take place, the might of the state came down heavily on the youth. The police in Delhi went berserk, searching for so-called anti-national elements inside libraries, where, when they couldn’t find anti-nationals, they, result-oriented as they are, settled for students studying peacefully. And now, come Republic Day, on full display will be the same might of the Indian state, parading with glory and threat in equal measure, celebrating exactly what the students were protesting for: the beauty of the Indian Constitution.
Twenty years ago, when I began my career in journalism, there was a stock paragraph that reporter after reporter started her or his copy with year after year: “Thousands of hearts beat in unison as the brave jawans of the Indian armed forces marched on the majestic Rajpath…” In those days, neither the time, nor my mind, nor my chief reporter were ready for the kind of question I am going to put forward now: why do we need the military to parade before the nation to celebrate the adoption of the Constitution?
Before anyone calls me an anti-national military-basher, let me assure the reader that I am very proud of the Indian armed forces, although every now and then I find the presence of Major General GD Bakshi (Retd) and Major Gaurav Arya (Retd) on national television very irritating, and I would be loath to make irresponsible comments about the army.
The Indian Army is one of the institutions that guarantees us the kind of life we are able to lead in this country. There is no merit in taking the Indian Army for granted and I am not making a case for not displaying our military might. This time around, it is my sense of occasion that is outraged. I cannot understand the relationship between the Indian Army and the Constitution, unless someone is trying to convince me that they legitimise each other, in which case I would like to gently point out that in nations where the Army and the Constitution have a symbiotic relationship, dictators call the shots and not democratic institutions.
Why do we need to show the might of the state when we are celebrating the adoption of our Constitution? After all, the army protects us from the enemy outside and the Constitution protects us from the enemy within. The army isn’t the safeguarding institution of the Constitution, the Indian Parliament is. (Even as I write this the vulgar image of politicians marching down Rajpath comes to mind.)
And if one were to take the argument along its logical trajectory it is not even the Parliament that protects the Constitution but the people of the country, represented by institutions where the state is, if not completely powerless, then mostly powerless, in the sense that even if the state machinery tries it cannot interfere. Take a university or a medical or an engineering college for instance. I am not counting the judiciary as one of those institutions because the state has time and again shown how it can bend the law to suit its needs with complete impunity. And it is members of these institutions, where the state has little or no say, that came out on the roads in protest against the lacerations in the Constitution that the present government is responsible for in the name of strengthening our democracy.
The trouble with the idea of the nation-state is that unlike an apple or an orange it is what it is: an idea. Not just any idea but one that a large number of people agree on. And ideas have to be nourished, not just protected. The Indian Army, with its majesty and valour, can protect us from enemies, but it can hardly nourish the idea of the dream called India. It is for this reason that I think it is far more advantageous to have a parade on an occasion like the Independence Day, when India needs to symbolically tell the world in no uncertain terms that the days of our bondage are over and we are now free for all foreseeable future.
On Republic Day we should celebrate the civics teachers in elementary school who plug young minds into the dream of the republic, doctors who treat politicians, professors who question the institutions they draw a salary from, and students who bunk classes to protect the sanctity of the class room. The Republic Day military parade could perhaps be shifted to another day, the venue could be the same, and 26 January could forge for itself a new identity as the day when anyone who feels Indian is allowed to celebrate the book that makes us who we are and allows us to dream a future where we can be everything our potential and circumstances allow.
Mayank Tewari is a former journalist and a writer and actor, known for Newton, Bard of Blood and The Accidental Prime Minister. The views are personal.