News comes that the environment ministry has cleared the government’s project for constructing a new parliament building.
The above media report informs us that two sorts of observations have been made during the course of deliberations on the project.
One pertains to its timing and cost, and the other to the heritage value of the existing complex.
Both observations, it must be admitted, are germane, but I wish to suggest that whereas questions related to the timing and cost of the project have obvious weight, given that in times of the current pandemic moneys should be saved for rejuvenating a collapsed economy and for alleviating the unprecedented suffering of millions, the argument about heritage value is open to interrogation.
Heritage buildings do not comprise only aesthetic features but memories of bygone worlds of social and political organisation.
Often, structures of monumental cast remind us of historical practices not always acceptable in the present day. Thus much as we admire such expressions of power, it is to be doubted that we wish to see a return of the social equations or modes of governance of which they speak.
We are thrilled to visit a Red Fort or a Bastille, but hardly desire to bring back monarchy, be it benevolent or brutal.
A caveat though: not everything built by pre-republican structures of power may be said to be inhumane, exclusive or oppressive. We must continue to thank many of them for the tree-lines, the gardens, the roads, the resting places for travellers, the music, the art, the literature and often forms of social harmony they bequeathed to us. Not to speak of the cuisine.
But parliamentary buildings of colonial times remain rooted in memories of colonial oppressions as well, however the architecture may enthral us. Therefore, the moot point is not whether or not we may retain the old structure of our parliament building complex or construct a new one, but whether the new constructions will bring with them a new spirit of democracy as well.
Thus, if the colonial structures have embedded in them legislative histories that gave us a Rowlatt Act, or laws pertaining to sedition, we may not enhance the spirit of democracy much should such histories continue to inform our current-day legislative agendas. Or, if in our legislative career cesspools of feudal thought continue to find place because these persist in influencing the social lives of vast segments of our populations, from the top down, it may be added.
If the ventilator is a source of oxygen for the coronavirus patient, the oxygen of our republican democracy, incontrovertibly, is stored in our founding constitutional values.
Therefore, if the new building brings with it a new conviction in universal human rights, in the fundamental rights of free expression and informed critique, in the right of free association, a dedicated commitment to national health, with the last woman and child at the centre of policy, to providing livelihood on a sustained and dignified basis to millions of our working citizens bereft of the privileges of class, to the independence of state institutions, a willingness to learn lessons about the environment that the coronavirus phenomenon has brought to us, and , above all, to the all-important ideal of secularism, the new building may have served a purpose larger than those of a renewal of brick and mortar.
Most of all, were the new building to inspire our legislators finally to evict such draconian colonial laws as sedition, UAPA, PSA, NSA and the many “digital” provisions of policy that function as mechanisms of surveillance, allowing the citizenry to make free and bold contributions to firming up the spirit of democracy, we may applaud the moneys spent on the new construction.
But if a new building carries with it an old heritage inimical to a republican way of life, we may feel that the moneys could have been better spent.
If a parliament building is the body of our democracy, the soul is the spirit of free enquiry and public accountability, and an impartial rule of law, none of which may be deleterious to that spirit. A mere change of vestments, it may be agreed, is a poor substitute for a transformation that may reinforce the faith of the commonweal in the ideals of the national struggle against the values of the old parliament, and in the resolve of our rulers to abide by those ideals, come what may.
Here is that magnificent plea that Macbeth makes in the play of the same title: “Do not dress me in borrowed robes.” Supposing the old parliament complex to have been a “borrowed robe,” our new building then must be our own robe that houses the covenant that “we the people” gave to ourselves – not just in form but in a persuasive praxis that may make of the new building a heritage in turn to be truly proud of.
Badri Raina has taught at Delhi University.