The Indian Constitution Is the Soul of India, Not Ram

Today, we are witnessing an attack on India's soul which emerged during the freedom movement while the ruling dispensation presents a distorted version that revolves around a temple.

The vibrations of the spectacle of inauguration of Ram’s temple are still in the air. This inauguration was done by Prime Minster Narendra Modi who was at the centre of the whole ceremony. In this instance he represented both ‘state power’ and ‘religious power’. In feudal times these two were working in close collaboration, boosting each other. There was King-Pope, Nawab- Shahi Imam and Raja-Rajguru. In Maharashtra, there is a very apt rhyming of this collaboration – Shetji-Bhatji (landlord and priest). That the country, ruled by politics in the name of religion, is seeing this trajectory fructifying is a matter of deep concern.

When India became independent and the Indian Constitution came into being, the presence of religion in social spaces was very much there. So when Dr Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president, was planning to inaugurate the Somnath temple as the official head of the state, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to him saying, “I confess that I do not like the idea of you associating yourself with a spectacular opening of the Somnath Temple. This is not merely visiting a temple, which can certainly be done by you or anyone else but rather participating in a significant function which unfortunately has a number of implications.”

Nearly seven decades down the line, the prime minister of India inaugurated the temple with pomp and show and the president, Draupadi Murmu, was an appreciative onlooker from her vast Rashtrapati Niwas. The Union Cabinet not only hailed this act but went a step further to pass a resolution, “…the body of the country attained Independence in 1947…the Pran Pratishtha (consecration of the temple) was done on January 22, 2024… The Ram temple movement has united the country as never before and it is the day when India’s soul got freedom.”

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This shows the erosion of India’s secular values which, so far, were held up by the state, though in a compromised way. However, now the word secular itself has become taboo. Even Nehru at that time had realised that while the Constitution is based on secular values, the society is in the grip of religiosity. So he advised the president not to inaugurate the Somnath Temple in his official capacity.

India’s period of ‘slavery’

The prime minister and his ideological cohorts have been saying that India was a slave for over a 1,000 years. This implies that the period when the Muslim kings ruled was a period of slavery. How do we define slavery in a country or a region? Broadly, two major criterions can be applied.

One, when the region is being controlled from outside. But the Muslim kings who ruled India settle here and ruled in collaboration with the local landlords and kings.

The second major criterion is if the region’s wealth was drained out. The period of Muslim rule did not see any such phenomenon. It was observed during the British period. Shashi Tharoor in his book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India tells us the drain of wealth from India to England during this period. British rule was the period of slavery on both these counts. Some Muslim plunderers did come but never stayed back to rule.

The question of India’s soul

The soul of India lies in the values which were the base of the freedom movement. The soul of India also lies in the movements which accompanied and ran parallel to the freedom movement. These were the movements of workers and farmers; these were the movements for social equality. India’s soul was built on the foundation of the Indian civilisation which is well described by Nehru as “some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”.

The freedom movement drew inspiration from farmers’ movements (Bardoli and Champaran among others), labour movements led by Narayan Meghaji Lokhande and Com. Singarvelu, and struggles for social equality in terms of caste and gender. Visionaries like Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule, Bhimrao Ambedkar, and Ramasami Periyar Naicker played a key role in transforming Indian society from a ‘feudal-like’ structure to one aspiring for democracy.

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The Indian Constitution is the embodiment of ‘soul of India’ for the majority of the people. Those who did not participate in the freedom movement were the ones who upheld the caste and gender hierarchy of the past. These were the social classes that were against caste and gender equality as well as the rights of farmers and workers. These were precisely the forces which asserted the politics in the name of religion – the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The Muslim League contended that Muslims were the rulers, whereas the Hindu Mahasabha-RSS asserted India as a Hindu Nation, denouncing Islam and Christianity as foreign religions. Surendra Nath Bannerjee, in his book India: Nation in the Making, articulated the country’s sentiments as it shaped itself around the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Today, however, claims of Ram being the uniting figure are being made. Ram has many interpretations. A mythological figure presented by Valmiki and later popularised by Goswami Tulisdas is one interpretation. Kabir saw Ram as the embodiment of universal humanism while Gandhi saw him as a uniting figure. The RSS and BJP have interpreted him as an exclusionary figure.

The campaign for this temple has exacted a toll, evident in the loss of numerous lives, societal polarisation, the marginalisation of minorities, and the exacerbated plight of Dalits, Adivasis, women, and workers over the past few decades. It is also reflects in the social indices and the emergence of Muslim ghettos all around.

Today, we are witnessing an attack on India’s soul which emerged during the freedom movement while the ruling dispensation presents a distorted version that revolves around a temple.

Ram Puniyani is president of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism.