This Constitution day we must reimagine living the law by inverting hierarchy and giving meaning through the perspective of the marginalised, writes SHIV VISVANATHAN.
ike any anniversary, Constitution Day is a moment of celebration, recollection, a reliving of the essence of an idea as a way of life. But of late, anniversaries in India have become dry as dust affairs. Instead of recreating the spirit of the institutions, they offer a taxidermy of its principles. One senses the need for a different kind of ritual, something suggestive of play and invention.
At this moment, like most anthropologists, I was reminded of Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic book on Rabelais. Bakhtin, a great literary critic, saw the carnival as a playful act of inverting hierarchy, of subverting authority. The carnival is an act of catharsis, which communicates the flexibilities of a system. I was imagining as an ethnographer, what a carnival of a Constitution would mean. It would definitely evoke an end to the pomposity of the Constitution, recreating a different sense of dynamic. It could create a theatre of possibilities and experimentations.
A friend of mine, an expert on experimental theatre, suggested three interesting scenarios. Each shock, each surprise, each enactment as a hypothesis, encode new possibilities in the Constitution.
Such a science we felt would break the Dalit sense of victimology around waste and sanitation. The Dalit transforms his vulnerability into expertise and instead of a Lutyen’s city we would have a Wilson city, a city designed as a Dalit imagination.
The first idea comes from a comment by Bezwada Wilson, the Magsaysay Award winner. He was talking of sanitation, drains and septic tanks. He said sanitation is all very well intentioned but at the end of the chain is a Dalit and the septic tank. Nothing changes the situation. The disgust, the decay at that level, the number of sewer deaths is a constant litany of the city. Neither rights, nor dignity, nor technology has much to redeem the situation.
It was at this stage I was reminded of what D.R. Nagaraj once said, he asked me playfully, saying I was useless till I created a Dalit theory of the city or a Dalit science. Such a science we felt would break the Dalit sense of victimology around waste and sanitation. The Dalit transforms his vulnerability into expertise and instead of a Lutyen’s city we would have a Wilson city, a city designed as a Dalit imagination.
It reminded me of what the scientist C.V. Seshadri once said : “Constitutionalism is only a set of legal rules till it is accompanied by a different sense of sociology and technology.” Sheshadri added, “waste has to become central to the imagination because waste is the only resource of a wasted people.”
Nagraj and I also felt that sustainability without a Dalit imagination would be mere bourgeoisie table manners. A Constitution needs a SDG crafted around a Dalit sense of vocation and dignity.
My friend, warming up to the new constitutional scenarios, claimed a law is lifeless till it was experimentally run through several situations. A constitution needs a heuristic of social imaginations.
One is simply arguing that a constitution must embody a connectivity between livelihood, lifestyle and life chances. UN millennium indices are tolerable if they incorporate a Dalit imagination into the Directive Principles with time bound guarantees.
My friend, warming up to the new constitutional scenarios, claimed a law is lifeless till it was experimentally run through several situations. A constitution needs a heuristic of social imaginations. He made a second suggestion.
Most Indians, he claimed, do not know about the Chirala effect. Policy intellectuals discuss the death of the Handloom and Handicraft Committees and dismiss the rest as irrelevant. But Chirala was a social revolution that needs to be constitutionalised.
Right to Theory
Chirala as theatre is simple to delineate. It began as a conference between historians of science and technology and a few thousand weavers. It began traditionally with the weavers sitting cross legged on the ground while the experts sat on chairs. In a moment of serendipity, a Dutch scholar suggested everyone sit on the floor, very soon the weavers brought their looms to explain their work. It was a conversation of craftsmen. This was not the sunset industry, the regime is talking about. A weaver suddenly told the historians, “You have theorised us away. We are obsolescent because you have destroyed our theory.”
We must make the pleas of Jaipal Singh as critical to the Constitution as Ambedkar’s tenets. A right to nature is a right to an ecosystem and its myths. Nature has to be restored as a person and as a source of the sacred in the Constitution.
A right to one’s theory is as critical as a right to livelihood and both are related. Chirala in that sense evokes a right to cognition, a right to theory, as a guarantee against obsolescence. Guarantee against the obsolescence of living thriving communities is something we must constitutionalise. Weaving involves 13.5 million people. To seek its erasure is to officialise genocide.
My friend added, a tribal imagination has to be a part of a constitution. We must make the pleas of Jaipal Singh as critical to the Constitution as Ambedkar’s tenets. A right to nature is a right to an ecosystem and its myths. Nature has to be restored as a person and as a source of the sacred in the Constitution. My friend stopped and said, “What I said so far was an epic theatre for the Constitution.”
A sense of the carnival would demand a simple test on craft and tribal economies. Ask yourself a simple question. How many lawyers and judges understand sustainability. A question on that would spoof the judiciary. But a carnival should allow for inversions otherwise one senses a deeper authoritarianism in the future. Wisdom says irreverence can be timely.
(Shiv Visvanathan is an Indian academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of science and technology studies, and for the concept of cognitive justice- a term he coined. He is currently a Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat. The views are personal.)