The Constitution of India should be seen as a work-in-progress – not because it has been amended ever so often by different governments but because it has been taken over by ‘we, the people’, repeatedly, especially since the 1990s. The ‘authorized’ interpreters of the Constitution and Law are no longer its sole interpreters. The continuous battles over its interpretation in the courts of law are only one way in which meaning is contested. But from the dalits reclaiming it as “Babasaheb’s Constitution” to the pathalgadi movement of the Jharkhand adivasis and finally as the banner of citizenship movement today, its meaning has been contested time and again in the streets and in villages.
It is customary, in most secular-nationalist and left-wing circles, to invoke the “great values of the national movement”, which is seen as synonymous with the “freedom struggle”, which in turn is reduced to the “anticolonial struggle”. On 15 August 1947, India attained Independence from colonial rule and on 26 January 1950, “we, the people of India” gave to ourselves the Constitution of India. The anticolonial struggle came to an end in August 1947 but that did not mean that all the currents that comprised the larger “freedom struggle” – the jang-e-azadi – got their freedom. We perhaps need to make a distinction today between the “freedom struggle” (that is still ongoing) and the “anticolonial nationalist” movement.
We need to state emphatically that the “freedom struggle” of different social groups is not – and never was – reducible to the “anticolonial struggle”. There were many different strands and currents that either functioned at a distance from mainstream nationalism , or even worked in opposition to it.
The question that is uppermost on most people’s minds today is what will happen to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and how long will the protests continue? The home minister Amit Shah declaring that the Act will not be withdrawn and the government will not move an inch, regardless of the protests, is a direct challenge to the people of India. With the Supreme Court looking the other way, taking up challenge thrown by Shah can only mean one thing now: if the Act does not go, the regime must. Mass movements have been known to bring down oppressive regimes, and even in the recent past, we have seen that happen in different parts of the world.
Subsequent developments, however, also indicate that often forces emerge that basically take advantage of the mass movements to hijack them and install equally unpopular regimes – a matter we need to discuss very seriously. I will briefly return to this ‘political question’ later as it is of utmost importance that we grasp the possibilities and dangers inherent in the present moment.
Beginning this week, we are starting a column which will appear every Thursday. The name of this column, ‘Parapolitics’, is meant to indicate something that happens all the time, outside the formally designated sphere of politics, or what is sometimes called ‘the political’ by political theorists. As a matter of fact, most of such politics – parapolitics – takes place everyday and is deeply tied to our everyday lives. It is also what we may call ‘existential politics’: the dalit boys flogged by upper caste men inside a police station in Una, the woman of Unnao, whose family is decimated by the rapist’s henchmen, the mob-lynching to which Muslims are subjected on a daily basis, the farmer or the unemployed who commits suicide, the displaced adivasis or the workers who fight back – all these are instances of things deeply political but occurring away from or beneath the ‘proper’ domain of politics. The ‘proper domain of politics’ – that of state/government, parties, elections, alliances and so on – has repeatedly historically revealed its fundamental disconnect with such existential politics. Indeed, whenever faced by mass protests, the first response by the political class is to reduce it to the purported machinations of ‘opposition parties’. It cannot think of people, ordinary people, coming out in autonomous action. We might recall the response of the UPA government, at the height of the anti-corruption movement, challenging the locus standi of the protesters with the questions: ‘who are you?’ or ‘who has authorized you?’ etc Parapolitics is that unauthorized politics of everyday life, which often bursts out into the open but may also simply go on under the surface without any necessary public manifestation.
The most striking aspect of the present upsurge of popular anger around the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), as has been widely noticed, is the way defiant young women have become the face of the struggle. I am not referring here only to the women whose iconic images are circulating everywhere today, but also to the sheer number in which they have come out and the power with which they have been speaking their mind before the media. And they belong to all communities.